Personal stories build community

One of my favorite events in a town loaded with excellent events is the Hearth storytelling series. Four times a year, founder Mark Yaconelli persuades members of the community to tell a 10-minute, true personal story around a given theme. The fall theme is “True Tales of Change,” and six local people will each share a personal story of transformation.

One of those locals is Catherine Foster, a senior editor at the Shakespeare Festival. This will be Foster's first time in front of the Hearth microphone, but she has been in the audience twice before and found it to be an intimate and thought-provoking experience.

“The people on stage are ordinary people, they're not actors or professionals, and there is a vulnerability, an unscripted quality to their stories that really makes you feel what they are going through,” Foster said. “I've been amazed at what great tellers this town has ... I've loved the funny stories and the heartfelt ones, but what I admire most is the courage people show in standing up and sharing.”

The Hearth event begins at 7 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 30, at Temple Emek Shalom in Ashland.

A $5 donation at the door goes to a regional nonprofit group. This time, proceeds will go to Rogue Climate, an organization that works toward increasing community awareness and political action in regard to climate change in this region.

Foster will tell the story of how, at age 50, she decided to adopt a 7-year-old girl from Russia.

“I thought how adopting a child so late in life was such an enormous but also delightful and rewarding change in my life,” said Foster. “When I heard that the next Hearth theme was change and transformation, I thought my story would fit well.”

Foster says she is also hoping that her story of adopting an older child late in life will inspire others to do the same.

“I'm a big proponent of adoption, particularly older people adopting older children. Because I was ambivalent at first, I want people to know that you don't have to be 100 percent certain of a big decision to move ahead, and you don't have to be a perfect person. I think my story will encourage others in similar situations,” she said.

Sharing and listening to personal stories can break down cultural, social and economic barriers, and can connect people in surprising ways. Foster decided to share her adoption story after hearing another woman at an earlier Hearth event talk about her adoption experience. “Our experiences were very different, but also similar in some ways,” she said.

For newcomers to the area, Hearth storytelling events are a lovely way to get to know the community. During the break, there's time to chat with someone you just met or catch up with people you haven't seen in a while, over lots of good snacks and wine. Foster says that the Hearth helps builds relationships.

“I especially like listening to the stories with so many other people in a room,” she said. “It's a communal experience you don't get from anything else, not a concert or theater. It's so unique.”

In addition to the rich storytelling, the audience will enjoy live music organized by local fiddler Duane Whitcomb and poetry. So come out Thursday to rub elbows with your neighbors and hear some of them speak of times or adventures that changed them. It may remind you of a time you were changed, maybe even inspire you to consider sharing that story, that little piece of yourself, with someone else.

Temple Emek Shalom is at 1800 E. Main Street. For more information or if you have a story that fits an upcoming theme, contact Mark Yaconelli at

Angela Decker is a freelance writer in Ashland and can be reached at


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