A room full of strangers of multiple races and ethnicities, half young and half old, finds themselves sharing personal stories of their lives that they’ve never talked about with anyone but close friends. The group meets and talks for an hour on three Fridays in April—and all say what a meaningful experience it was to connect with the others in the group. “I want to remember how happy this made me.” “The entire experience was affirming, welcoming, fun-filled…” “We came in as strangers and we made lifelong friends.” “This experience was eye opening for me. I came in nervous. I have not connected like this with someone who doesn’t look like me.”
In a world where digital connections are outpacing human connections, what happened there?
Schlessman librarian Amy DelPo believes human connections are what really matter in life. In the January 2016 Front Porch we told the story of The Memory Café, a group DelPo started where people with memory loss and their caretakers can gather and know others will understand. The group is still meeting. She also started a singers group where people of all ages gather to share the joy of singing together just for fun.
Her next idea for helping people connect came when she met DU photography professor Roddy Macinnes at a meeting of leaders from Denver cultural institutions who are trying to transform what it means to age in Denver…“to bring creativity to the process of getting older to make it a richer, better experience.” DelPo learned Macinnes had taken his photography students to nursing homes where the students and nursing home residents connected over conversations about personal photographs.
DelPo immediately thought a similar experience would be meaningful for people aging in their homes—and a partnership was formed between DU and Denver Public Library. She announced the library-sponsored Photography and Memory Project, asking participants to bring the one photo they would take with them as they left a burning building.
In preparation for the project, DelPo and writing teacher Anne Walker led a class session with the participating students—which was everyone registered in Macinnes’ Photography 101 class. In Walker’s written reflections on the project, she noted that when the students were teamed up with an older person to talk about their treasured photo, “What happened next was nothing short of magical. Faces young and old lit up recalling fond memories of special [occasions]. All it took to talk to one another was a snapshot…”
DelPo describes the photos as catalysts that created really deep conversations and created a wonderful bridge so that people connected across different ages, backgrounds, races, gender. “We tend to be put in our little categories. It was a beautiful thing for people to step out of those categories and just connect and be reminded of what we have in common.”