Telling the stories of a lifetime
By Laura Ross
Photos by Kathryn Harrington
Tell me a story.
It’s a simple prompt, and one that can generate happy memories, sad recollections or raucous experiences. When tied to your life, it becomes truly personal.
Writer and educator Angela Burton knows firsthand the power of storytelling. Words on the page are an elixir to her, and she’s always known her future would include helping others tell their stories by figuratively putting writers’ feet to the fire and encouraging them to express themselves as much as possible.
She didn’t, however, expect the fire to become a (welcome) conflagration.
Her father, Joe Kirtley, who died in 2012, was an inspiration to Burton. She realized that despite his advancing age, his creativity was peaking. “My father wrote a lot before he died. Our family is so lucky to have his essays, poems and more. It’s a gift to us all.”
Burton created a series of what she called Feet to the Fire Writers’ Workshops, where she mentored and coached groups of writers in developing their talent. When she thought about her father, she decided to expand the writers’ workshops to senior care facilities.
In 2015, she took Feet to the Fire to several area assisted living and senior care facilities and offered the six-week workshops, which worked with small groups of residents who were given encouragement, story prompts and the chance to put pen to paper. The workshops caught on like wildfire and became popular throughout Louisville at facilities including Episcopal Church Home, Miralea at Masonic Communities, the Nazareth Home, Brownsboro Park and others.
“Feet to the Fire Writers’ Workshops are about lifelong learning,” Burton said. “Participants are not taught how to write but how to use self-expression. That confidence and creativity helps build autonomy and connection with others.”
She didn’t realize it at first, but Burton was capturing valuable research. “It was really cool that people were expressing their legacies and stories, but then I realized, more importantly, they were redeeming a sense of self and purpose, and that’s so important as you age.”
Not only did it keep creative juices flowing for the seniors and provided cognitive exercise, it also gave a sense of closure. “As you look back at your life – the good, the bad, the ugly – you revisit it by writing about it and you come to terms with a lot of things. It becomes expressive writing and can be therapeutic as people age,” she added.
Medical research is showing scientific evidence that sharing and recording stories is beneficial for older adults. It builds self-esteem, enhances feelings of control and often is therapeutic psychologically. A 2015 Pew Research Center study also found that 55 percent of adults age 65 and older have a computer at home, and suggests that encouraging journaling, writing poetry or memoir development as a helpful tool in the aging process.
“I initially looked at the workshops as a legacy writing approach but saw that was just the tip of the iceberg,” Burton said. “I came to understand the tremendous benefit of more serious expressive writing, which provides a more social outcome. Isolation and loneliness are critical factors for people who are aging. It can literally make you sick. Research has shown that loneliness can have the same physical results and symptoms as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”
Coming together in small writing groups each week has enhanced the social, cognitive and even physical lives of the seniors who participate in Feet to the Fire workshops. “The byproduct is the story, but what happens in the process becomes more important to the person,” said Burton. “My focus with Feet to the Fire celebrates the human being and human condition and how people connect.”
I realized, [the writers] were redeeming a sense of self and purpose, and that’s so important as you age.”
— Angela Burton
As the workshops’ popularity soared, Burton saw a need to grow her business. It had grown beyond a helpful program for seniors, and media coverage began to spread her story across the nation. “As it rolled along, I realized there is a need for these workshops,” she said. “I transformed Feet to the Fire into a product. I created a training program, writing prompts and a workable kit that is a solution for people to utilize.”
And on a whim in early 2018, Burton auditioned for the Wild Accelerator grant program.
Wild Accelerator is a Louisville-based micro-accelerator and startup initiative geared towards early stage and idea-stage female entrepreneurs looking to snag an investment, create an initial prototype or create a focused, go-to-market strategy.
Burton joined more than 80 applicants in the process, which included meetings and pitches to a panel of business leaders and funders. “I’d never pitched Feet to the Fire in this way, and I just gave it a shot,” she said. “I had no idea what to expect.”
That chance thrown to the wind paid off. Burton quickly learned she made the list of top 10 finalists, which was then whittled to three entrepreneurs who were selected by Wild Accelerator. “All three entrepreneurs got the same support,” said Wild Accelerator Interim Director Stacey Servo. “Each were granted a $25,000 in-kind support budget from Kale & Flax, John Ackerman Accounting and some legal and financial services, and Kentucky Science and Technology offered all three entrepreneurs a $20,000 investment.”
That was followed by an intensive, nine-week program that counseled Burton on business topics including marketing, branding, financial and legal advice and strategic planning.
“The program really taught me how to grow and expand my business to the senior writer’s market,” said Burton. “It truly accelerated what I was doing. I formally launched the program, got some new national media coverage and it’s just exploded interest in Feet to the Fire.”
“Angela’s brilliance isn’t just in her storytelling abilities or community building,” said Servo, “it’s also in her tenacity and curiosity. She’s a fast, hungry learner who’s passionate and pushes herself and her understanding of the world to a higher level. Angela is a learner, doer and collaborator.”
Burton now licenses and sells the Feet to the Fire Writers’ Workshop program to senior care communities and wellness organizations nationwide. She’s even had interest worldwide with inquiries coming in from the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.
“(Last year) took me by surprise,” she admitted. “It’s starting to unfold, and I’m always thinking about how to expand the workshop, but I have to focus on the core of connecting people through writing and sharing their stories.
“I love working with the aging population,” Burton added. “They are very honest and are my biggest fans because they know how valuable the writing is to them personally.”
Since she began the program in 2015, she’s worked with hundreds of senior writers, who’ve penned thousands of stories. Some have even taken it a step further and published their work, which makes Burton particularly proud. “There is a gentleman at Episcopal Church Home who is in his 90s and has been published several times in Kentucky Explorer magazine,” she said. “That’s given him a wonderful sense of accomplishment.
“Writing is like breathing to me and I try to present it that way,” said Burton. “Writing captures our thoughts, but sharing it connects us as one. We all have stories to tell, no matter what our age.” V
To learn more about Feet to the Fire Writers’ Workshops, visit feettothefirewriters.com
Writing Samples from Some of Feet to the Fire’s Authors
By Art Boone
The house where I grew up in Elkton was a big frame house. There were 10-foot ceilings in the rooms nearest the street. Entering the front door you came into the hall with a spiral staircase leading to the upstairs. To the left was our bedroom and to the right you entered the living room, also called the parlor. Behind it was Papa’s bedroom, followed by the dining room, breakfast room and kitchen. Heat was provided by open fireplaces in the living room, dining room and bedrooms. These rooms had open brick fireplaces with grates. We had a coal house and wood house out in the yard, and it was my job, starting when I about five or six, to bring in coal and wood for them and the kitchen stove. I was also responsible for cleaning out the fireplaces and carrying the ashes out to the lane leading to the barn. That provided my allowance.
We bought coal from the coal yard and it was delivered by a horse and wagon and put in our coal shed. We also had a wood shed to keep stove wood in. Coal came from the Madisonville area and it was block coal, which you bought by the bushel, and the dealer delivered it by horse and wagon. Stove wood was bought by the cord, measuring 4x4x8 feet or rick, just a pile of short pieces of split wood.
There was no natural gas for heating but you could buy kerosene, which was called coal oil to burn in stoves. We had a coal oil stove with four burners in the kitchen by the old Majestic range, which Mom used for some cooking, especially breakfast.
Our bedroom, which I shared with my parents, had an open grate brick fireplace which we used all winter. We never had a cast iron heating stove. As weather demanded, we started fires in the grates as a measure of keeping warm. That would probably be in late September and would last until early March, about seven months.
During the day, you were busy with chores, homework from school and no telling what else, but the grate fires had to be maintained. Wood and coal had to be brought in to prepare for the night and ashes had to be carried out. After supper, the family gathered, often in Papa’s room, to listen to WHAS or WSM. Favorite programs like “Amos and Andy” and the world news was our entertainment until bath time. There was no heat in our bathroom save a one-burner coal oil stove and in colder weather, we opted to get my bath in our bedroom using a wash tub in front of the open fire. Actually, it was more of what I would call a “spit bath” as I was too big to get into the tub.
After I got cleaned up, we might sit by the open fire place a while before I crawled into my bed. Mom, Dad and I might go over the days happening or the plans for tomorrow while wrapping a quilt or throw around ourselves and getting as close to the hearth as we could. Facing the fireplace you were toasty warm while your backside was cold. When bedtime came, Dad had to bank the fire with ashes, and maybe get up during the night once to add more coal or wood to keep the fire going. I brought in coal in a coal scuttle filled with coal and kindling and firewood and laid them on the hearth before dark. If it was extremely cold, we had to resort to an extra blanket or quilt for warmth.
There was no such thing as natural gas available anywhere close to my hometown, so we just put on extra sweaters to withstand extreme cold. Those nights we were warm and cozy in spite of old Jack Frost, and I remember how Mom or Dad tucked me in to be sure I was cozy warm. After all, I was their little angel, if you believe that…. Do you want to cozy up to me?
Prompt: Drug Stores of Childhood
By Barbara Roche
It has to be the first drug store I ever entered. In our copper mining town of Ruth, Nevada, where all the company-owned houses looked much the same, the drug store was privately owned, and thereby looked more like a building on a movie set of the Old West. It had a false front on which the name appeared in bold letters – Ruth Drug Company. Inside, the space was squared off: the first section was the store, the middle section was for mixing drugs and the last section was the house where the druggist and his wife lived. She had a piano and composed songs. The hillside rose steeply behind the building. As a child, I remember the soda fountain. I would climb up onto a stool navigating a round swivel seat. Here I was introduced to the five-cent chocolate ice cream cone and what became a favorite, then and to this day, the root beer float. It sold for a quarter. And on occasion, when I was at home sick with some malady, my dad might bring home a chocolate malted milk.
A Day of Learning and Fun
By Judith Conn
Never too old to try something new. I had never been in a raft before, especially one that would be going down the Chattahoochee River in Georgia. It is the river that was used in the filming of “Deliverance.” It was a wild, exhilarating ride. We carried our raft to the water’s edge. Given our life jackets, helmet and our paddle, we suited up and headed for the shallow area to practice our paddling skills. I had none! Our guide settled us into our positions and we were given quick lessons in how to use the oars, how to follow directions and how to change directions at a moment’s notice. We learned what to do if we fell out of the raft. Heads-up bottoms down and hopefully you will be able to keep your head up so you can watch for boulders. Before we got out of the shallows, I slid out of the raft. Our guide was able to help me back in. I did not feel too ashamed about flipping out, we all took a turn. It was definitely helpful to know how to get back into the raft. The river was a tough choice for a group of novice rafters. I “shot the bull” which is a steep fall through and around boulders in rapidly moving water.
A snippet from Carol Mead, a workshop participant:
“…It’s the last day of the year and I am sitting in our cozy living room writing my essay for Feet to the Fire writing class on this rainy Monday morning. This is our sixth Christmas in Louisville and we are happy to trade in a white Michigan Christmas in exchange for a green Kentucky one – even a wet one. As I’ve told you before, the grass is much greener here, especially at this time of year. Right now, I have created a hygge [pronounced hoo-ga] mood, which is that beautiful Danish word for a feeling of contentment and warmth and well-being. There is a blazing fire in the fireplace, lit candles in the windows and our first Christmas tree in our Kentucky home. We found a two-foot Scotch pine that will last until Easter, well, at least through Epiphany. When my son came after Thanksgiving, he marveled at the size and asked if it was real. We have never had an artificial one but he didn’t think live ones came so tiny…”