In September 2017, we wrapped up our pilot run of the Story Cure Program with a regional storytelling event in Erie, Pennsylvania. We sat down with our Founder, Benita Cooper, and LIFE-NWPA Director of Outreach and Governmental Relations, Jay Breneman, to discuss what the event means for both organizations, and the lives of older adults in Pennsylvania. Email info@bestdayofmylifesofar.org if your organization would like become our next Story Cure partner. Please enjoy “The Stories of Erie” special collection in our Story Library and our event photos on Facebook.

“From beginning to end, the event focused on honoring our older citizens and their amazing stories and memories. One of the best things that I really enjoyed was seeing the big smiles on the seniors faces as they spoke, and the others that are considered the younger generation fully engaged and marveling in the way things were in the Depression and looking at how far things have come today. One of the things that I was able to embrace was to be thankful for what you have. Not tangibles, family, time, loved ones, experiences as they come. I am very thankful to Jay and Benita for inviting us and I look forward to working in the future on other ventures together.”

– Scott Hoover, Aseracare Hospice Bereavement Coordinator and Best Day Event Attendee

“When we began, I was unsure about one individual who tends to be opinionated and often crude; however, as he has been telling his stories, you can see that he is sitting taller, contributing and encouraging to others… [Our participants are] building deep relationships of trust as they have opened up and share… Their willingness to share their brokenness, at various points in their life, is a true testimony of how trust is built in this group and how sharing stories impact lives… Giving voice to a person’s life experience, not only values the person, but connects all those listening in a way that is forgotten in the fast pace of society as a whole.”

– Cynthia Schoffstall, LIFE-NWPA Social Worker, Story Cure Program Participant, and Best Day Storytelling Group Facilitator
A Story by Kaitlin Kortonick
On a picture-perfect September day in Erie, Pennsylvania, an unlikely group assembled in a bustling conference hall, gathering around tables with nervous smiles. Over the next three hours, tensions broke, shyness disappeared, and laughter filled the hall. Seated among social workers, healthcare professionals, college students, professors, family members, and others, an energetic group of older adults stepped out of their comfort zone to open up about their hopes, dreams and fears, simply by telling their stories.
The dedicated staff and members of LIFE-NWPA have made the commitment to really get to know one another on a human level, beyond professional correspondence. In May, staff received professional training and online tools from Best Day’s founder, Benita Cooper. Over the next couple of months, they met weekly with older adult participants for Best Day storytelling sessions to nourish their relationships. The “Living Independence for the Elderly – Northwestern Pennsylvania” model is also known nationally as PACE, or the “Program of All-inclusive Care for the Elderly.” Their partnership with Best Day allows LIFE-NWPA to elevate the quality of their social and mental health care within their already inclusive, life-changing work. The results were remarkable, and were on full display at our September event! Cooper shared Best Day’s unique model for helping older adults find their voice and experiencing true inter-generational engagement, then turned it over to program participants for storytelling exercises.
Jay Breneman, Director of Outreach and Governmental Relations at LIFE-NWPA, began working with Cooper in the summer of 2016 to create Best Day’s “Story Cure” Professional Development Program. He first heard about Best Day at a business meeting, when a colleague suggested it would be a “good fit” for LIFE-NWPA’s needs. Breneman and Cooper hit it off immediately. Over “hundreds” of texts, emails, and phone calls, their natural curiosity grew into a powerful partnership, fueled by a mutual passion for human connection and community improvement. Breneman recalls, “It was the implementation of the Best Day program with our seniors that reaffirmed my belief that what we were doing was having a profound impact…and that it was worth sharing with the world.” According to Breneman, the collaboration was designed to truly connect social workers and older adults throughout Northwestern Pennsylvania; to create “a more assured [caregiving] staff that understands the human impact of their work;” and to promote confidence and openness for participants, to assure them that they are not alone.
The now-national program, with sites in PA, NJ, WA, OR and IL, began in a borrowed basement office at Philadelphia Senior Center eight years ago. Reflecting on how far the program has come since those early days, Cooper hopes “this partnership proves that with the right local/regional partners, Best Day has the infrastructure and programming to make large-scale social change.” For her, this change is most visible in the individual transformations of Best Day storytellers. When asked to describe a memorable moment from the Erie event, Cooper recalls an older woman who thanked her, tearfully, for the program that pulled her out of her “funk.” After consulting with her social worker, Benita learned that this “radiant,” impeccably-dressed woman had been isolated, angry, and often unclean…but “within three to four weeks of attending a Best Day group…began showering, improving her appearance and visibly changing her entire outlook on people and on life.”
Breneman reflects, “seeing the faces of the participants as they shared their heartfelt stories was moving,” but adds that “seeing the rapt attention of the event audience members as they not only listened, but supported one another, left me with a sense that we were doing something magical.”
Breneman and Cooper hope to continue sharing this magic with the world, as they plan to expand Best Day’s reach to local universities and senior living facilities in the NW Pennsylvania region. Together with their teams of talented professionals and devoted volunteers, they will share their simple, but life-changing technique of active listening and emotional support, to make a change that Benita describes as “both bigger and deeper than what the human eye can see…a change that every single participant can feel in their heart.”