AmeriCorps VISTA Uses Power of Storytelling to Impact Lives

AmeriCorps VISTA member using Zoom to tell stories and connect communities
Nicole E. Jackson

Jillian Maynard is helping the aging Jewish community in Youngstown, Ohio tell their stories. From surviving the Holocaust to making a new life in the United States, the Life Stories Project serves as a form of narrative therapy while also helping to strengthen the connection between participants and their children and grandchildren.

Although she is a college student and has no connection to the Jewish faith and culture, Jillian was drawn to this AmeriCorps VISTA opportunity serving with the Jewish Family Services. She wanted to understand why this project was necessary. She quickly learned that aging adults in the community were lonely and needed an outlet; they wanted to share their stories.

Shay Kahani-Erez, the Senior Outreach Coordinator for Jewish Family Services, introduced the Life Stories Project idea to the organization when she moved to Youngstown from Israel a few years ago. She’d seen the impact the project had on participants while in Israel and wanted the elderly in her new community to have the same powerful experience.  

As the second AmeriCorps VISTA serving in this role, Jillian’s goal was to increase the number of stories collected from the prior year. Her role also included helping to produce research for the project. Jewish Family Services is using the stories to aid in the research of the well-being and life acceptance of elderly members in the Youngstown Jewish community.

While each story was different, the process for collecting the stories remained the same for each participant. Jillian interviewed participants in three to four sessions, beginning with experiences in participants’ early childhood and ending with late adulthood in the final session. The interviews were then transcribed and placed into a small book for the participants to keep, providing a “nice artifact that can live on after they do.”

One of Jillian’s favorite participants, if she had to pick only one, is that of a “fiery and sassy” 108-year-old. She is a Holocaust survivor, who lost both of her parents. She immigrated to New York while pregnant and with nothing. After working as a housecleaner, she and her husband were able to build a happy life.

“You could see how proud she was to be where she is today. It was tough hearing her story, but it was definitely inspiring.”  

Jillian has also experienced the impact that the stories are having on the participants’ families and on the Youngstown community. Participants have reconnected with family members and with other aging people in the community. Many have even began participating more in activities at the Jewish Community Center. During the presentation event of the story booklets, younger generations get a glimpse into the lives and contributions of the older Jewish population they’re surrounded by in their community.

As her year of service comes to an end, Jillian has learned that “everyone has a story.” She leaves this opportunity as a better listener, understanding that people just want to be heard. Although Jillian’s role as an AmeriCorps VISTA will be over, she will continue working with Jewish Family Services, helping the next volunteer that will take over her role of collecting stories – while also recruiting additional volunteers for the program.

“Hopefully, I can help this project expand. Because I love it now. I’m completely invested in it. I want to see it grow and become a recognized project in the Youngstown community.”

She also hopes that other demographics will mirror this project.

"This is a project that you can do anywhere and with anyone. You don't have to be part of the Life Stories Project. You can do this with your own grandparents. Ask them 20 questions about their life, then write them down into a book that they can keep."

Back to Top