պ students illuminate seniors’ lives through memoirs

Dr. Christy Rieger shares her senior’s memoir with student Arie Danko.Within the peaceful confines of Elmwood Gardens Senior Community, a heartwarming initiative is unfolding that transcends generational boundaries and touches the lives of both young and old.

Twenty-one պ University freshmen in Dr. Christy Rieger’s Research and Writing honors class are recording the seniors’ life stories in memoirs, giving a voice to those who have lived rich, often untold, lives.

The young writers, meanwhile, are learning the art of storytelling while conducting research, forging meaningful connections, nurturing empathy, dispelling stereotypes, and reinforcing the idea that every individual, regardless of age, has a story worth sharing. Studying life-writing texts in the course has also taught them key aspects of the genre.

The idea for the assignment came from Rieger’s personal experience doing the same, which was prompted by her mother’s death last year. Being the writer in the family, she was charged with writing her mom’s obituary and eulogy.

She knew the basic story of her mother’s life but missed a few key facts. Fashioning a life into a concise and meaningful form while tracking down those particulars in a fog of grief was challenging.

Later, through պ’s Community Engagement program, Rieger connected with Elmwood Garden’s Amy Sebald, director of lifestyle engagement, giving rise to the current project. First though, Rieger would test the waters by doing the assignment herself.

Last summer Sebald connected Rieger with an 80-year-old resident, who was delighted to share her story. She talked about growing up in eastside Erie, graduating from East High where she was active in choir and athletics, and working at several local establishments, from her early years at a former Greek restaurant in downtown Erie to later in life working in communications at the Erie Police Department.

The senior’s most rewarding and inspiring role was raising her daughter. Sadly, she did this alone after her longtime love yet husband of only two years died of a brain tumor.

After the interviews, research, and mutual review of materials, Rieger completed the memoir and presented it to the woman in a booklet form, a keepsake that everyone seemed to enjoy, including Elmwood Gardens staff members who took turns reading it.

“She is just an amazing woman,” Rieger said. “I learned so much about her and Erie … in my research, I even found a vintage postcard of the Greek restaurant where she worked as a young girl. It was called Coogo’s.”

Rieger is hoping her students have the same positive experience. Already, they have had their first meeting with the residents and, according to Sebald, “When the students came into our activity room, there was nonstop communicating for an hour. After the students left, I heard comments like, ‘My student was so nice to me,’ ‘I am excited to see the finished product,’ and ‘When are they coming back?’”

For freshman Criminal Justice major Annabella “Arie” Danko of Ellwood City, the project couldn’t be a better fit. Danko has been performing since she was a young girl, often singing at retirement homes with her mother. She is as much at home with seniors as she is friends her own age.

“I’ve always had a special place in my heart for the elderly and this project lets me relate to them in a different way,” she said.

The senior about whom she is writing was a performer, too, she discovered. “She was involved with choir and did some musical theatre … even performed at the Warner Theatre,” Danko said. “She is very family-oriented and shared some lovely memories of her parents and siblings.”

In the end, Rieger hopes the project will teach students research and writing skills as practiced in a human relationship. It may even leave an indelible mark on the hearts of the students, who were able to forge connections between generations through the magic of storytelling.

PHOTO: Dr. Christy Rieger shares her senior’s memoir with student Arie Danko.