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05/01/2012

The Next Generation: Senior Storytelling Group Expands to Involve Teens and More

In April of 2010, First Person Arts interviewed Benita Cooper, Founder of The Best Day of My Life (So Far), a blog with the unique mission of creating supportive moments and places where senior citizens can feel free to be themselves through the art of storytelling. Since we last spoke with Benita, the blog has surpassed 25,000 views from over 60 countries and gained the support of AARP, The Free Library of Philadelphia, and The Philadelphia Foundation. I followed up with Benita to ask her how the project has been going and what changes we can expect to see in the coming years.

Becca: How many years has it been since you created The Best Day of My Life (So Far)?

Benita: It has been two and a half years. We started the project in September 2009.

Becca: How did The Best Day of My Life (So Far) get started?

Benita: I was 26-years-old and had been away from home and was feeling homesick. I decided to call my grandmother just to talk with her on the phone for a couple minutes and she started telling me the story of her birth in Cantonese! Before I knew it we were on the phone for an hour. I learned that she was taken by force from her birth parents by a woman who knew her father. By the end of the hour I was too shocked to even respond and at the same time, even though the story was so traumatic and sad, I felt very close to her. I still call her every other night.

I asked people at the Senior Center at Broad and Lombard if I could meet with some seniors to try to have them tell their stories, and the Thursday meeting we started is still going strong. Then we added teenagers in the summer, and the connection between the generations was clearly very exciting for both. It became obvious that teens and seniors have a great deal in common – and much to learn from each other.

Once The Best Day of My Life (So Far) began, family members from other cities started e-mailing me saying that they hadn’t experienced such connection with their grandparents until our blog. Organizations and schools started sending requests for me to give talks about the project. I realized that we stumbled upon something unconventional that has shocking benefits for quality of life, behavioral health, and mental heath. We created a community in a way that other senior centers don’t have.

Becca: When we last interviewed you, you were writing a book inspired by your relationship with your grandmother. How’s the development of the book coming?

Benita: I’ve actually started writing a new book!

Becca: A new book? So does that mean you’re taking a break from your first or are you working on two books right now?

Benita: I’m working on two books now. The original book is about my relationship with my grandma and her stories. The new book I’ve started meets a demand that all of our readers and supporting organizations have asked us for, which is how others can start inter-generational relationships of their own. The book will include the pivotal and memorable moments of the making of The Best Day of My Life (So Far) as well as lessons we’ve learned along the way. All I’m trying to show is a series of miracles that have all happened out of the first phone call with my grandmother to give people the nudge to start their own. There has been some interest from publishing companies, but I’m still looking for agent.

Becca: Your organization and its impact are growing. I understand that this summer you will be announcing an expanded vision and plan for The Best Day of My Life (So Far). Can you tell us a little bit about what this next chapter of The Best Day of My Life (So Far)’s story will look like?

Benita: Over the past year, I realized that the next step for The Best Day of My Life (So Far) is to develop a network of senior storytelling groups along with teen reading groups. Our newly clarified vision is to create a community, which empowers seniors and teens to help each other through storytelling. It will be a compilation of a mega digital network and localized neighborhood focused groups.

Becca: What inspired you to move in this direction with The Best Day of My Life So Far?

Benita: From the very first summer I wanted to open our doors to teens. They not only came, they brought friends and kept coming. Some of the teens came from troubled family backgrounds. When I talked with their coordinators at their social services organizations, they told me these teens would refuse to write, which sounded crazy to me because in my class they asked for pen and paper. It made sense for the project to grow to actively reach out to younger generations.

As far as the digital expansion is concerned, we never want to lose the power of the face-to-face component. At the same time we want to be sustainable and have a massive impact. To do those things we must be digital. All we need is corporate sponsorship to make the plan a true reality.

A team of Wharton graduate students just completed a semester in which they chose to work with our project. They got to know all about what we do and to see the possibilities and benefits in the expansion of the program. Right now we’ve grown through volunteer effort, but we realize that both individual and corporate sponsorship will be needed as we expand.

Becca: How do you feel about the expansion and new vision?

Benita: I am thrilled and confident at the same time. We have the unique experience to improve senior centers nationally in a unified way. Our design appears to be a truly effective method for breaking down barriers between generations, ethnicities, and socioeconomic levels. We provide the kind of healthy social networking that remedies problems many seniors face: isolation and depression, and promotes literacy, community involvement, and the joy and satisfaction found in giving among teens. It’s a win-win for everyone concerned on a scale we had not foreseen. We expect that funders concerned with the mental health and education of all will be interested in our expansion.

Find more information about The Best Day of My Life (So Far), read seniors’ stories, and sign up for their mailing list to learn how you can be involved at www.thebestdayofmylifesofar.com. “Like” The Best Day of My Life (So Far) on Facebook.

-Becca Jennings

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