The Shepherdstown Area Independent Living organization, or SAIL as it is more commonly known, has partnered with Shepherd University for a year-long intergenerational project entitled “Hear This! Sharing Stories Across Generations.”

SAIL is an organization helping seniors in the Shepherdstown area remain in their own homes—actively engaged in the community for as long as possible.

Marianne Alexander, who is acting as the project director, explained that the effort has matched a member of SAIL with a student at Shepherd, both of whom will be responsible for conducting oral history interviews of each other concerning the “transformative experiences in their lives.” There are ten of these pairs in the program.

A central question posed during the interviews was, “What events or persons have influenced the course of your life?”

Once all 20 stories are collected and transcribed, Alexander says they will be available for public viewing at the Martinsburg Library and the Scarborough Library at Shepherd.

The culminating event will be in the spring of 2020, when selected SAIL members and students will present their stories to an audience, after receiving instruction in storytelling from Adam Booth, a Shepherdstown resident and internationally acclaimed storyteller.

Getting Started

There is “great social value” in this effort, said Alexander, pointing to the bridging of generational divides between both groups of participants.

Betty Snyder, a West Virginia native, retired Chicago social service agency director, and local author, agreed.

“I believe the amount of distance between races, generations, religions, and other groups is damaging to everything around us,” she pointed out. “Anything we can do to cross a barrier, whether political or otherwise, might bridge that gap, and it will be good for us, our communities, and the country.”

Another involved SAIL member, Marie Tyler-McGraw, took it a step further and localized it.

After completing the training offered to SAIL members, she went home and interviewed her husband, and encourages others to do likewise.

“A goal of this project is to encourage participants to talk with their families and friends more about their daily lives and strengthen our speaking and listening skills,” she said. Tyler-McGraw organized and participated in a number of oral history projects throughout her doctoral program, including former WV Vista volunteers and National Park Service employees.

For those who might be interested in trying their hand at oral history, she urges them to “… just go out and start—interview a family member at Thanksgiving, especially someone of a different generation.”

Tyler-McGraw did add that there are certain guidelines one should follow—the most important being getting consent from the person being interviewed to record the conversation and make a transcript of it.

Shepherdstown SAIL

Uniquely Positioned

“Hear This! Sharing Stories Across Generations” is uniquely positioned for a community like Shepherdstown, with both a vibrant cross-section of townspeople, but also a university which openly discusses partnership organizations with those in town, according to Snyder.

Alexander explained the idea for the project came about when SAIL member Catherine Irwin suggested an intergenerational project that “involved collecting others’ stories.” Over the course of the discussion, it was decided the process used by historians would be implemented, whereby an interview is recorded digitally and then a typed transcript would be produced and available for public review.

Those SAIL members who wished to participate took two weekend workshops to receive appropriate training. Last spring, interested students were asked to volunteer and were then matched with a SAIL member who helped them learn the ins and outs of oral history projects.

Several Shepherd professors, including Sylvia Bailey Shurbutt, director of the Center for Appalachian Studies and Communities, and Rachel Meads, offered their students credit for participating.

Tyler-McGraw indicates many of the participants expressed a desire to extend the interviews or participate again.

“The students have loved it,” she remarked.

Alexander added that she hopes the program will continue next year. Snyder agreed, and wishes “… to see other generations take part.”

“I definitely got more out of it than I’ve given,” she added.

Undeniable Value

In addition to the interviews, a panel discussion took place in October called “Collecting and Preserving Each Others’ Stories.” Held at the Senator Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education on Shepherd’s campus, the discussion was supported by the West Virginia Humanities Council and co-sponsored by the Byrd Center, the Historic Shepherdstown Commission, and the Department of History at Shepherd.

Participants included Jerry Thomas, professor emeritus of history, Betty Snyder, Keith Alexander, associate professor of history, and Caitlyn Sheets, a 2019 graduate.

The panelists shared a sampling of the stories they collected through their interviews and discussed the advantages and information gained from two generations discussing their lives and some of the most impactful events they have encountered. Additionally, the panel promoted the value of oral history and oral history projects.

A second panel discussion was moderated by Tyler-McGraw at the Martinsburg Library.

A date and location for the March presentations is forthcoming.

Those interested in learning more about SAIL, and future events, can find out more by clicking here.

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