Writing to bridge the community gap: A creative storytelling project

dustin2 On the second floor of the UMD business school on a Thursday night is a group of people who have formed a community of their own through a storytelling partnership known as the Storytelling Project.

This group of people is comprised of students of various ages and majors who are working with a group of people who live with some kind of disability. Traumatic brain injuries are the most common.

This project was started about two years ago by Katie Van Wert, a professor in UMD's English department, who was inspired by a similar project she had been a part of at the University of Rochester in Rochester, NY.

"It was called the Inspiration Project and was started by Joanna Scott, a novelist and English professor at the University of Rochester.  I worked on the project for two years in Rochester, and when I joined the faculty here at UMD I decided to start a version of the project for UMD students and the Duluth community," says Van Wert.

Van Wert also says that, "One of this project's goals is to strengthen UMD’s ties with a sector of our community who are underrepresented in educational settings, and as a separate but related point, who struggle to be heard.  The project is a way for them to write their stories – both fictional and non-fictional – in a workshop format where they can learn alongside UMD students.  They have moving stories to tell and extraordinary creative talents."

One hour with this group of people helps you see how important it is to make community connections and execute service-learning projects the way they are really meant to be done.

Ben and Dan

Ben Pieper and Dan Clark have been working as storytelling partners for two school years now.  Dan suffered a traumatic brain injury at birth, but it doesn’t seem to hamper his positive spirit or attitude about life.


Last year, Ben and Dan wrote a story together called The Hidden Love, a fictional story about a girl and the man that appears in her dreams to save her from evil whose face she is unable to see.  Now, they are working on a story titled The Trophy Pickle which he hopes will become a play for a Choice Unlimited performance – a group, “…dedicated to supporting individuals with disabilities and persons who are experiencing barriers to employment and community inclusion," according to the mission statement found on their website. Many of the other storytelling project writers are involved in this performance group as well.

This storytelling project has served many people in the community who have disabilities as the result of a traumatic brain injury or Cerebral Palsy.

The student and faculty volunteers working on this project find it important to tell the stories of these people because, “Our participants have lived fascinating, often challenging lives, and their stories are inspiring.  They are people of courage, sensitivity, humor, and creativity -- and their stories do what all great literature does -- they move us, entertain us, challenge our assumptions, and teach us about the human condition," says Van Wert.

This project values bridging the community gap of an often underrepresented group to help them share their life experiences and join together in their honest exploration of the human experience.

Van Wert also mentions that the storytelling project volunteers like to refer to their participants as “people with disabilities” rather than “disabled people” because it puts the person first.

Eric King, a graduate student working as the program coordinator, says this program does a great job of creating an atmosphere where honest and open exchanges are encouraged.  He adds that for him, being part of this storytelling project made the world seem more human by working to break down the barriers between the disabled community and the rest of the community.

Seeing that people with disabilities are just as capable of doing many things that people without disabilities are capable of is a realization that can draw the community closer, just as it has done with those involved in this storytelling project.

Dan is a participant who is a great example of this, having lived his entire life with his traumatic brain injury.  He grew up with siblings who were not disabled and has stayed determined to not let his disability keep him from being active and involved in life.

Dan hopes his stories will serve as an escape for his readers.  He says his stories are inspired by anything he reads, which explains his drastic jump from a love story to a new story about neighborhood gangs reflective of the movie Sandlot.  Dan recently finished reading the Twilight Saga, and also enjoys reading love stories, and works by author R.L. Stine.

Along with writing, Dan has a diverse set of interests that include dream therapy, writing poetry, acting and the Special Olympics where he competes in softball, bowling, track, hockey and basketball.

Dan is a very outgoing and entertaining individual, and when asked about his interest in acting his face lights up and offers up his best impression from the movie Boyz n the Hood: “Whatchu talkin’ bout momma?”

He is also not short on jokes: “What did the priest say to Mother Superior when she asked him on a date?” He smiles in anticipation of my guess, “I don’t want nun of that!” he bursts.

Dan tells me he likes jokes because they loosen any tension that may be in the roomas he looks over at his partner Ben with a cheeky smileas if to say, “Remember when we used to be really awkward around each other?”

Ben, an aspiring English teacher, smiles back at Dan and tells me that they’ve been a great partnership.  He says Dan has helped him practice and get better at the overall writing process and how to begin putting thoughts down on paper and how to organize the story before they begin the official writing process.

Their story is just in the beginning phases, but both are excited to see what comes of The Trophy Pickle, and hope to continue their partnership in the school years to come.

Meghan and Anna


Meghan Carney and Anna Wychor are new to each other as teammates this semester.  Megan is a going to school to be an English teacher, and Anna is currently living in a group home where she is working toward gaining more independence and using the storytelling project as a form of emotional release.

Anna is working on telling a story about a physically abused girl who finds the courage to run away and found her way to a foster care family who provided loving support - something she never knew came with having a family.

When asked about how she comes up with ideas for her stories, Anna tells me that it depends on how she is feeling and what kind of mood she is in.

Anna is an avid reader and aspires to be a famous author someday.  Aside from reading, she also fills her free time with Sudoku puzzles, Nancy Drew computer games and photographing nature.

Meghan, whose major has made her accustomed to writing individually,says that helping Anna write her story has been an interesting process for her since she has become so accustomed to writing individually.  Meghan tells me that she sees her experience helping people like Anna express themselves through words being very beneficial in her future as a teacher when helping students with their writing processes.

Meghan and Anna’s goal is to finish Anna’s story by the end of the semester.

Dustin and his team

Dustin Wyberg and his team consisting of Seth Thomes, John Fahnenstiel and Kyle Farris are working together to help Dustin, who has a traumatic brain injury caused by a car accident he was in his senior year of high school, write a story about a character named Rudolf.

As I joined the table with the group my eyes immediately locked on Dustin, whose lighthearted spirit and caring personality are apparent right away.

When I began to ask Dustin about his story’s character he explains to me that he lost his sense of smell after the car crash, and has created this imaginary character, Rudolf, who has also lost his sense of smell but will end up finding it at the end of the story.

For Dustin, this storytelling project is a way for him to work on exercising his imagination in addition to providing him with something to do.  He told me he likes coming to work with the students at UMD because it gets him out of the house.

When Dustin is not at UMD working on his story he likes to fill his free time with computer games as well as board games, particularly Monopoly and Sorry.

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