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Igniting Connection

Left to right, front to back: Angela Burton, Judith Conn, Norma Laufer, Barbara Roche, Carol Mead, John Harbison and Juanita Walker.

How a writing workshop is bringing joy to isolated senior communities

 

By Sarah Levitch
Photos by Cooper Burton and Kathryn Harrington

 

When faced with the challenge of gathering people in a time when people cannot gather, Angela Burton determinately continued her writing workshop, Feet to the Fire. How did she do this? Via Zoom, of course. Beginning in 2014 as a passion project, Burton’s extensive background and education in creative writing and teaching lead her to construct a workshop for those who claim, “I’m not a writer.” With hopes to “bring connection, belonging and purpose to older adults,” Burton took the workshop to a retirement community in early 2015.

Burton said, “I felt like it was meeting a need that wasn’t there for people who live in communities that need more holistic programming, like art, music and writing. Whether you’re 18 or 104, we as people have the desire to be known and heard, and that’s the call for Feet to the Fire. People ask me what I do with the stories from workshops as if they belong to me, but they don’t. They belong to the people who write them. I am of the firm belief that no one can write your story for you. We empower people to write their own stories.”

The past five years brought tremendous growth, igniting the workshop’s influence and allowing the fire to spread. Once the workshop was molded into an officially licensed program, Feet to the Fire was sold to other communities and is now in seven states across America. Ray Dickison, COO of Christian Horizons Living in St. Louis, MO wrote, “Angela’s Feet to the Fire program is so meaningful and makes an impact on our residents and associates providing their care. We see our memory care, skilled nursing and assisted living residents really enjoy writing, sharing and learning about others. After connecting with Angela through the Thrive Center, Christian Horizons is so pleased to now partner with Angela for communities in Indiana, Iowa and Illinois. “We look forward to implementing Feet to the Fire at all our locations in the future,” said Dickison.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit in March, Burton was determined to not let her hard work go out the window, remarking that, “I know that writing is very therapeutic, and the participants get a sense of accomplishment and purpose. People are not going to stop needing to feel valued, loved and connected.”

Taking the workshop virtual meant that older adults in isolation in retirement communities could still participate and share their stories. The only remaining obstacle for the participants was figuring out how to work a computer. Burton mentioned that, “What encourages me is when I see older adults tackle technology. I think Feet to the Fire is timeless because technology is going to keep meeting people where they are, and we’re going to keep meeting people where they are. I’m really heartened by older adults embracing technology in order to get to this thing they love.”

Judith, a participant in Feet to the Fire for four years, reflected in correspondence that, “When I joined the class, my expectations were fairly low. I had never done this kind of writing. I had tried writing in a journal off and on for years but was never consistent. Having Feet to the Fire as a part of my weekly plan has given me the means, time and encouragement to write. Nothing earth-shattering, but hopefully, a part of me and my story will be of interest to my children, grandchildren and beyond! I would be so thankful if I had anything my parents and grandparents had written about their daily lives.”

Seeing her workshop’s significant effect on older adults’ lives, Burton began to think of all people 65 years or older who were not in retirement homes, but simply isolated in their own home. In hopes to offer the program to more people, Burton and her team will be releasing a consumer version of Feet to the Fire in the next few months that will include an individual writing kit and virtual writing groups to share in. 

Commenting that writing is like yoga for the mind, Burton inspired me to dust off my journal and stretch out my lobes. There is an innate human need to share our stories and to have people listen, whether young or old. Open your ears and you’ll find that the person on the other side has a story too, one probably very similar to yours. We are all looking to belong; we are all longing to be heard.

I listened to Burton as she shared the following closing thoughts, “We all feel locked down in this world. I think we need positive ways to connect and support each other. Feet to the Fire isn’t just a conversation, it’s a deep sharing of something they created. It’s very personal. It insights reminiscence, closeness and friendships. That to me is invaluable.”

Wherever you are, however old you are, I encourage you to pick up a pen, share your voice and write your story.

For more information, visit feettothefirewriters.com.