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Episode 33: Angela Burton – Part 1

Ep 33: Feet to the Fire with Life-Story Legacy Writer Angela Burton Part 1

Lucas: Alright! Welcome back to Bridge the Gap podcast, the senior living podcast here with Josh and Lucas. We have a really, really exciting as we do every week but this in particular is a very special event that we’re here in Louisville, Kentucky, at the Thrive Center of Innovation and we have the one and only Angela Burton. She is the founder of Feet to the Fire Writing Workshops. Welcome Angela.

Angela: Thank you.

Lucas: So, Josh, we’ve had a very interesting travel schedule and this is one that’s been incubating for probably a little over a month and we’ve been trying to figure out a way to get with Angela and now the stars have aligned and we’re here.

Josh: Yeah, super excited. You know, we at the Bridge the Gap have had an awesome opportunity now people are learning about our podcast and hearing what we do. Angela, when we had our first conversation with you, the passion was evident. You love what you do, we are huge fans, so glad to be here at the Innovation Center. In Louisville here for those that might be watching on YouTube not just listening on iTunes, in the background there’s a beautiful set. So what you’re doing at the Feet to the Fire is right here and it’s in our background so I hope everyone will love this podcast.

Angela: Yeah, it’s so fun. I’m so glad you guys came to Louisville.

Lucas: So, Angela has kind of stole my heart and we’ll definitely connect in the show notes.

Angela: I did?

Lucas: Yes, you did. In a different way than my wife and kids, but just a little caveat, right? So, you have some content out, it’s actually playing behind us and we’ll put a link in our show notes so if anybody is listening or watching right now, once the podcast is over or the video is over you can go and check it out. But, you have a very unique approach that involves some cognitive aspects of remembering aspects of people’s stories and their life. So, for our listeners, why don’t you frame up maybe the why and how this got started and just tell us a little bit about your program.

Angela: Sure, absolutely. So, Feet to the Fire was totally inspired by my father who before he died he wrote and he wrote and he wrote- essays, poems, stories. He was at a point in his life where he had retired and he wasn’t quite sure, you know, what his purpose was anymore and I think he was kind of depressed, frankly. But, he would disappear into the basement and he would write on his computer. And we thought he was playing chess and low and behold he would appear and there would be a story and there would be a poem.

And all the sudden they started to appear in the local newspaper because my dad had connections with the newspaper. I’m like, ‘Daddy’s getting published, this is crazy, this is interesting.’ But what he was doing was he was making sense of his life now that he had time. Now that he was looking for something purposeful to do because he had finished being a businessman, a business owner. And then when he died what we were left with was this legacy of his stories and his essays and his poems.

So, we had this treasure trove. Some that we are still going through to this day and he died in 2012. So, that was in the back of my mind always and I’m a teacher and I’m a writer and so the notion to start a program that would serve aging adults because we’re all aging frankly, to help them find a sense of purpose within their lives but through the expressive form of writing because writing is a very wonderful, cognitive rich therapeutic type of way to express yourself. Writing, not storytelling, but writing.

Josh: Yeah, so that’s fascinating. I’m a firm believer in the what you touched on with purpose. I think regardless of our age, just like you mentioned, we’re all on this earth. We all live unique experiences. We have our frailties. We all have some level of disabilities- things that we’re strong at. But, through the good experiences, the bad experiences, we all have something to give back.

And you think about elders. The longer that you live on this earth, the more experiences and the stories you have to share. So, how valuable is to be able to tell those stories, to pass that on to the future generations, not just the families. You know, a lot of that as an operator in senior housing, how many stories that we’ve been told that the children, the adult children, they have never been told that they don’t really learn until they’re spending time with mom and dad in the senior care communities. So, what you’re doing is capturing that. I love it.

Lucas: Yeah, and so with that being said, can you talk to us a little bit about your process of starting this workshop and maybe some of the things you never thought or expected to transpire out of it.

Angela: Do we have all day? So, when I started the workshop, I thought what you’re thinking- legacy. Oh, this is a great answer to people capturing their legacy. The big surprise for me was the value that a program like this brings to self. To the individual. And also, it allows people to connect in ways that they wouldn’t otherwise connect in. It allows people to have a purpose but it also allows people to relate and connect to each other. And so, they share their stories with each other every week during the workshops and that is the beautiful part of it because they feel like I’m here. I’m known. And everyone wants to be known, frankly.I mean, don’t we? That’s why social media is popular with everybody.

But, we all have a desire to not be invisible. And I think sometimes as we get older, we become invisible and that’s not okay. So, you know, this is a program that really shines a light on the individual and allows you to be part of a group so you don’t feel isolated and alone.

Of course, you get the legacy stories because that is the byproduct of what they’re doing. But, what happens emotionally, socially, cognitively, is very varied. That was the big surprise.

Lucas: So, walk us through how the program works because I’m presuming you don’t just walk in with a legal pad and sit down and say, ‘alright, y’all start writing.’

Angela: No, because everyone would run out of the room.

Lucas: Right.

Angela: It’s a very thoughtful program in that I’ve created, my background is teaching, so I’ve developed a curriculum whereby the program is delivered in weekly sessions and there’s prompts and the prompts are the secret sauce to the Feet to the Fire. They’re strange and they’re quirky and they’re universal and you don’t know what people are going to do with these prompts. So, the stories that they end up writing about are unexpected completely, even to the purpose that is writing them sometimes.

The prompts are the neccesity, I guess, to get people to write because the Feet to the Fire, the whole metaphor of helping push someone along; if you ask people just to write about their life, they probably won’t do it unless they’re compelled to do it anyway. Usually, if I hand you a book and I say, oh hey, write your life story, you’d be like, no, I don’t even know where to begin.

So, the prompting, the guidance, the structure program helps people literally find their feet and be in community with each other every week. So, there’s a bit of peer pressure then to write your story and get it completed every week.

So, it’s never done in real time because that’s very hard to do, to write on the spot. I mean, some people do that, but we don’t encourage it. It’s more go and think about this, let this kind of marinate in your head and figure out how you want to approach the prompt.

So, that’s kind of how it works. And it lends itself to a neat process whereby people are taking their time and they’re getting to explore on their own, but they’re also coming back to the group with it.

Lucas: So, I would imagine, and Josh as an operator, you probably see this level of dissonance in the community where maybe they feel a little disenfranchised and the opportunity to bring dignity back to their life is probably that all good operators are really seeking and searching for.

So, Angela, I imagine that there are different personalities that come into the room. Some maybe are arms folded, I’m not really sure how I want to do this, I don’t want to tell a story, I don’t have anything else to do so I’m here. And there’s probably some who are really open and willing to do that.

So, how have you seen bridging the gap between those personalities in an outcome?

Angela: Well, you’re absolutely right. People will, they’re curious first of all. We’re curious animals, all of us, we’re curious beings. And so people will come in with a curiosity- I wanna see what this is all about. Some people first thing they say is, ‘but I’m not a writer.’ And it’s a common thing that we here that it’s actually in our marketing materials- ‘But I’m not a writer.’

And I’m like, okay, that’s fine. Are you curious? Yes. Do you want to see what this is all about? Yes. Okay, then, let’s see where this goes. So, we kind of really come in at a side door, if you want to look at it that way, rather than opening the front door and making people feel like they’re so on the spot to produce something, something whole. It’s very non-judgmental; there’s no grades attached; there’s no critical element to this. It’s bring who you are, what you have to the table through your stories.

And the goal is, you know, if they can get a paragraph, that’s awesome because they may have written the best paragraph that they’ve ever written. So, it’s really about what they want to bring to it and then they wind up just showing up and doing the work. They do all the heavy lifting.

Lucas: So, you go into a community or into a place that has brought in Feet by the Fire and they creative writing team- weekly prompt sessions, how long, if you’re there week after week, what do you see from the time you start until you see a completed writing project, what does that look like?

Angela: It never ends. And I’m kind of not kidding. There’s a group of right now that I can think of that’s been running the program for three years. And there are people in that program that have been in since the beginning. So, literally, there’s a woman who is 93, she’s going to be 94, she’s been working at her ongoing stories for three years. So, she was in the other day, and I said something about her journal, and she said, ‘which one?’ She has multiple journals now and it is a never-ending process.

You’re kind of never finished telling your stories, writing your stories, because we have so many things that happen to us during our lives. And the prompts are continuing to get at that.

So, yes, by the time someone dies and they’re gone, there is a body of work.

Josh: So, what does that look like? There’s this body of work and I can imagine, the example you just mentioned, 93 years on this earth, that’s a lot of journals, that’s a lot of stories. So, I could easily see four, five, ten years you could spend sharing your stories. What is the end product look like when someone either gets to the point that they’re like I’m finished with mine? What do you with that? Where does that go?

Angela: Well, so, the stories are not mine to do anything with. Because they don’t belong to me, right. But the families of these people who have written these stories and certainly the individuals, it’s up to them what they do with the stories. It’s kind of wonderful because you have handwriting which is very precious. I mean, I look back at my father’s handwriting and I can never read my dad’s handwriting, ever; he had messy handwriting. But, just knowing that that’s a part of who he was, that was him, that’s a really precious piece to this.

My goal is literally to develop a digital aspect platform to capture and keep all these stories for families so families would have access to a portal for example, cloud based version where their stories can literally be kept digitally because these journals are vulnerable to damage or loss. So, that’s a goal of mine as a company to help that process go along but they literally have the physical stories that belong to them.

Josh: That’s fascinating. So, what kind of feedback are you getting from the families, you know, when they see this completed part of work? Or when they’re just hearing mom or dad or whoever their loved one is that’s starting this process. What kind of feedback do you get?

Angela: Well, the families are always very supportive. I had a man in a workshop recently and I said something to him like, you know, I’m so glad you’re here, I’m glad you’re continuing with this. And he said, well, my daughter is making me do it. I said, she’s making you do it? And he said, well, yeah, she’s really pushing me because she wants my stories.

And I thought that was kinda funny and I joked with him and said, I thought you were here because you wanted to be here. But, sometimes, children, really do want their parents’ stories so they encourage it, they applaud it. Sometimes children will show up and sit on the workshop because they want to see what their parents are doing.

This is a very adult program. It’s not, you know, fill in the blank in a workbook, it’s not tell me about your first ice cream cone; it’s very adult and it really challenges people to think about how they could write to fit a prompt or how they could look at things. It could be a metaphor, you know, or it could be literal. But they really have to challenge themselves cognitively, creatively to come up with the story they want to tell.

Josh: Fascinating. So, we are really blessed that you’ve arranged for us to be able to talk to a couple of your writers. We’re going to have them on our show. It’s super exciting- I can’t wait. But for that community that’s out there, whether it’s in rural America or an urban area or part of a corporate environment that hears out podcast or sees it on YouTube and they’re like, I love that idea, how do I do that in my community, you know, how do they contact you and what does it look like, how do they facilitate making this happen in their community?

Angela: So, what I’ve because once the program launched within a little bit of press and word of mouth, it started to spread. Fire spreads. It’s accidental, not accidental, but I developed the train the trainer program so that program is available for use in care communities, wellness organizations, etcetera.

So, they can contact us through the website and I’m sure you’ll all have a link to that somewhere- to find out more about how to get this program in their community because it’s a wonderful program. It’s an out of the box solution. We train the trainer, we help them learn to facilitate these groups. Sometimes even volunteers are wonderful to lead these groups.

Sometimes even members of the community who have a lot of desire, you know, I’ve got a lot of older adults that are like I can do this, I could run this group. And I believe that would a-whole-nother level of purpose.

Josh: I love the concept- Feet by the Fire, it’s going to spread like wildfire, because of that and so very excited.

Lucas: Yeah, yeah. So, I think one of the interesting aspects of this is it’s a bridging of the gap between a very old thing which is storytelling that is we’re hopelessly craving for. Even in a digital world, we want stories and so I think the future for you and this avenue is going to be something that we want to stay connected to and close to because the aspect of taking that storytelling and even hand writing and then even maybe digitizing that into something that can be taken to the next generation and the next generation to keep is a really, really interesting process.

So, this has been a fun first part of us and we just want to tell our listeners that we have another that’s coming up that’s going to be very, very exciting. We’re going to be sitting down with your students to talk about their experiences and most of all their stories.

So, thank you for listening to Bridge the Gap podcast.

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Episode 33: Angela Burton – Part 1