For the Win is a guest blog series featuring the remarkable initiatives that young Americans are advancing to win the future for their communities. Each week we highlight a new young person and learn about their inspiring work through their own words. Submit your story to appear in the For the Win guest blog series.
Yooha Park, 17, is founder of Stories of Our Lives, a nonprofit organization which aims to provide a bridge between the younger generation and seniors by creating a nexus to share their thoughts and feelings. Yooha is a recipient of the Daily Point of Light Award, presented by Points of Light.
My grandmother hid in empty rice sacks to escape being raped by Japanese soldiers. But in the midst of hiding, she saw her father get brutally murdered by the soldiers and her younger brothers kidnapped. She never saw them again. The year was 1940 and, like many other Koreans, my grandmother and her family faced violence and torture from the Japanese, who occupied Korea until 1945.
This is all I know about my grandmother except for the fact that she was the mother of my father. She died when I was 7-years-old. Yet when I heard the news of her death, I could not help but feel indifferent. I had seen her a total of three times in my life because she lived 5,000 miles away from me. I felt more comfortable talking to a random stranger on the street, than I did when I talked to my grandmother. When I did talk to her on the phone, our conversation was limited to an awkward hello and questions you would ask someone you had just met — what grade I was in, how the weather was, what I liked to do in my spare time.
It has been 10 years since my grandmother died, and there is no way to hear her story anymore. My father and his brothers also knew very little about her past, and my grandfather doesn’t talk about her. Throughout the rest of elementary and middle school, I was always envious of my friends because they could easily talk to their grandparents and knew so much about their pasts.
That longing was satisfied in my freshman year of high school. My brother and his friends were singing for residents at our local assisted living home, which houses seniors who need physical therapy or have dementia. I tagged along because I had nothing to do that Saturday afternoon. While I was waiting in the lobby, I talked to Mary, a resident who talked about everything — where she grew up, her family, her first job, how she met her husband and even about her stamp collection. She said that no one ever came to visit her since all of her siblings had died and her children lived too far and were always working.
When I went back home, I couldn’t help but think of her for the rest of that week. I went back to Mary’s life story and her eagerness to talk about herself, something she never had the chance to do. To thank Mary for letting me hear her story, I made her a scrapbook. It was not expensive, but when I gave it to Mary, she began to cry and thanked me.
It shocked me that Mary would respond to my scrapbook with such gratitude. Her reaction made me want to help other seniors reflect on their lives. I wanted as many seniors’ life stories to be heard as possible; I didn’t want their stories to disappear like my grandmother’s. So I began to talk to residents at my local assisted living home weekly. Afterwards, I would go home and work on the scrapbooks. I could spend hours creating scrapbooks, and I loved seeing how thrilled the residents were. I wanted to share this experience with as many people as I could, and invited my friends and students from nearby high schools and colleges to help me out. Now, Stories of Our Lives members visit residents in assisted/independent living communities or families of hospice patients to talk about residents’ lives. For each book, we ask questions, including where he/she is from, learn about family, a favorite movie and even about personal stories, like the memory of a mother’s cooking. Each time I came back, many of the residents — who had trouble remembering where their rooms were — remembered my face.
Once members finish their interviews, they create scrapbooks as a way for residents to celebrate their lives. Many of the students have thanked me for introducing them to Stories of Our Lives. Our volunteerism teaches them how to take a break from their hectic schedules and just listen. The assisted/independent living residents often tell me that they look forward to our visits because the only other visitors they have are physical therapists and the occasional relative.
Stories of Our Lives aims to provide a bridge between the younger generation and seniors by creating a nexus to share their thoughts and feelings. For the seniors, Stories of Our Lives lets them think about and celebrate their lives by rekindling memories. For the younger generation, Stories of Our Lives provides the students advice and thoughts about how to live.
We also hope to be a small break from the digital age of the 21st century by sharing the thoughts and feelings of seniors via handmade scrapbooks filled with warmth from a younger generation.
And for me, Stories of Our Lives has been a way to fulfill my wish to hear my grandmother’s story. Though I have not heard her story, I like to think that she would want these seniors’ stories to be preserved because the stories of their lives ultimately help us create better stories of our own lives. To learn more about my cause, please visit storieslives.com.
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Ronnie Cho is an Associate Director in the White House Office of Public Engagement