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Best Seat in the House – by Penny Cook


We are pleased to present posts by StoryCenter staff, storytellers, colleagues from partnering organizations, and thought leaders in Storywork and related fields.

Best Seat in the House – by Penny Cook

Emily Paulos

How could a twenty minute story be condensed to three minutes? How is someone who doesn’t use a computer going to make their own video? What have I gotten myself into?

These were all questions that flowed through my mind as I sat through the first day of a CDS Workshop. I wasn’t really in the workshop, but instead, got to be an observer. I’m still not sure which seat was the best to be in.

I run an organization that tries to change the culture of nursing homes. We try to move them away from institutional, and into community. We help them truly be home for the people who live there. Nursing homes have a bad rap and some for good reason, but there are many out there that have changed, that have transformed. But sometimes it’s hard to alter people’s minds or to show them that things are different. That brings me to stories: stories of change, stories of transformation, stories of difference, and stories of hope. Who can argue with a story?

We brought ten people who worked in nursing homes together for a workshop so they could tell their story of “culture change.” What unfolded over the subsequent three days was poignant, powerful and inspirational.

A nursing assistant who seldom used a computer for anything learned how to save files. Someone who had difficulty reading and writing produced a script. A woman who suffered an abusive relationship with her mother told a story she had never told before. This was supposed to be about nursing homes. What happened?

What happened was that this workshop not only produced amazing, impactful digital stories, but it empowered and influenced ten women and gave them an experience some said they had never had in their lives.

And although they would say it had nothing to do with them, it had everything to do with Daniel Weinshenker and Mary Ann McNair from CDS. All my original fears subsided on that first morning when I saw the expert teachers at work. Empathy, compassion and patience exuded from both of them. When I reflect back on those three days, I’m still not sure how they did it. But that’s why they’re the teachers. Mary Ann then went above and beyond and personally helped the nursing home staff create ten stories with the residents living in their homes. We ended up with twenty stories!

I can’t thank CDS enough for this partnership. My Coalition got great stories to help educate and create awareness and we’ve been using these stories to their maximum advantage. All twenty stories were debuted during a 10th Anniversary Party for our Coalition at a local theater complex with Oscar statues for all the “movie stars.” We produced a DVD with the videos and a discussion guide (including a bag of popcorn for movie night!) and sent it to every nursing home in Colorado and other organizations around the country. The videos are prominently displayed on our website to explain the story of culture change and I’m always asked to include them in the presentations I give. 

All of this would have been enough to make the project more than worth it, but there was even more. The workshop participants had life changing experiences. The residents felt important, like they still had so much to offer the world. And I got to watch the power of relationships, the impact of creating a safe environment and the richness that flows from stories.

Now that I’ve been the observer, I need to be the student. My next seat is at a CDS Workshop.