In their own words
Digital storytelling captures memories for generations to comeBy Danielle Rexrode
Charlotte Valentine’s eight-year-old granddaughter, Alexandra, can revisit her childhood stays at Charlestown, the Erickson Living community in Catonsville, Md., where Charlotte lives, anytime she wants, thanks to the digital storybook her grandmother created for her.
The Little Girl Who Grew up at Charlestown, Charlotte’s third digital story, chronicles the six years she spent babysitting her granddaughter Alexandra—time spent having tea parties, feeding fish at Charlestown’s pond, playing putt-putt on the putting green, and blowing bubbles from the balcony of her home.
“Alexandra was born in 2003, the same year I moved to Charlestown,” Charlotte says. “I was retired and overjoyed to have a new little granddaughter to play with and to explore my new home. This digital story allowed me to capture those memories on DVD so she will always have them.”
Charlotte, a life-long writer of essays, poems, children’s stories, and fiction, including a 2004 novel, The Buried Treasure of Mt. Gretna, discovered digital storytelling after watching a series of digital stories created by her Charlestown neighbors, which aired on the community’s in-house TV channel in spring 2006.
“I was fascinated and eager to find out more about it, so that fall I volunteered to participate in the next Charlestown digital story project,” says Charlotte.
Organized by New Media Studio and funded by Retirement Living Television, the project pairs Charlestown community members with University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) students to create their own digital stories using narration, animation, photos, and music. The stories typically run two to three minutes in length. Charlestown residents, each acting as author and creative director of their own story, worked closely with their student partners to create the digital stories based on their own life experiences.
Charlotte completed her first digital story, Magic Dust, about her struggles publishing her novel, in the fall of 2006. My Dotage, a story about her journey in retirement, followed in 2007.
“Opportunities like this were unimaginable before I moved to Charlestown,” says Charlotte. “I would have never dreamed that I would be collaborating with college students to make small movies about my life. It’s just incredible!”
New Media Studio Director Bill Shewbridge says the technology to create digital stories is becoming more widely available, but the stories themselves are the keys to the project.
“Everyone has stories to share,” says Shewbridge. “I think retirees are an especially rich resource for this. It’s not just that they have more experience; it’s what they have learned from that experience. The stories that have come out of the Charlestown digital story project have covered a wide variety of subjects. Some are poignant, some are funny, but they are all interesting and valuable in their own unique way.”
“When you’re my age, you’re filled with lots of stories,” says Barbara Walker, who has produced three stories based on her childhood.
“There are moments in your life that, for whatever reason, you remember. They’re usually events from your formative years when you’re growing up,” she says. “That’s what I tried to do with my stories—pull out the funny little segments of my life that made me who I am today.”
Generation to generation
According to Shewbridge, the intergenerational aspect of the project also provides an opportunity for the students to engage in an intergenerational relationship they otherwise may not encounter outside of their own family.
“The students often comment on how much they have gained from this experience,” says Shewbridge. “They are always struck by how much they have in common with the Charlestown residents.”
The digital storytelling project is the nation’s first three-way partnership between a media company, a university, and a retirement community. Participants from the first workshop in 2006 were invited to screen their stories at the 2007 Maryland Film Festival. Each participant also received a bronze Telly award, honoring outstanding local, regional, and cable TV commercials and programs, as well as the finest video and film productions.
More than 30 digital stories in all have been produced through the program to date, three of which were created by author, painter, documentary producer, and Charlestown community member Marie Brinsfield.
“It’s a wonderful program, and it gives you a lot of insight into what the students are doing with technology,” says Marie.
Marie says she still has stories up her sleeve. As for Charlotte, she currently presents her digital stories as part of an Elderhostel Lifelong Learning class at Charlestown. She and Alexandra still enjoy sleepovers, drinking root beer floats while playing the juke box at Charlestown’s Fountain Café, and of course blowing bubbles from her balcony.