By Sandra DiPasqua
This is a story about the creative writing program for senior citizens that I have been organizing for the past three years, and some of the ways that it has made a difference in these seniors’ lives.
We come together around a rectangular table each week to share stories and memories. Our room to write is in the same building where many of the seniors live: Encore Community Services, a space in the Theater District providing a variety of services to any and all senior citizens.
The room itself is simple, if a little cluttered, with boxes, a table and chairs, an unplugged coffee machine and a constantly humming air conditioner in the summer. Between six and ten students come depending on the week (and their interest in the previous week’s writing assignment) to write and share. The people who inhabit this room each week have become important characters not just in my story, but also in each other’s. We’ve enriched each other’s’ lives, honed sensibilities, become braver and more vulnerable, and claimed or reclaimed ownership of a craft we have all grown to rely on. Below are the perspectives of three of the students who regularly come to the class.
Cindy Breedy lives in Queens with her husband of twenty-six years, her son, and their four cats. She has traveled to all seven continents in the world. She once shared that she had experienced several mild strokes and had been suffering from clinical depression; “I was at one of the lowest points in my life, when a friend started telling me about a writing class at the Encore Senior Center. I really didn’t want to go; it was [already] a struggle to get out of bed in the morning. Finally, I got tired of her hounding me, so I agreed to go one time just to get her to stop. I had no intention of going again.” Cindy joined our group, and never left again. “The writing class, headed up by Sandra DiPasqua, became not just the heart of Encore, [but] for me, it became a lifeline. My handwriting is nearly restored to the beauty it once was, my thoughts are clearer, and I can focus much better. My depth perception has improved. I am a better and happier person today, thanks to my friend who got me to my writing class.”
Sandra Rodriguez is a native New Yorker, singer and dancer. Sandy decided to join our writing group, she loved writing and was an avid reader as a child. She shared with me that the writing group inspired her to go back to college to finish her degree. “The group was therapeutic and creative for me at a traumatic time in my life. [Thanks to it] I felt smart enough.” She went back to college at 69 years old, finishing her degree after being out of school for 24 years. Sandra majored in psychology and minored in writing. She is now 71 years old and is fondly referred to as “The Graduate” by her peers.
Peter Gallinari is a longtime member who made appearances in over 30 movies and television shows. In Peters’ own words: “Most of us carry our stories around with us in our heads and hearts. They are important to us, but we never think that anyone else would be interested. To my surprise, when they are read to the group they are met with interest and acceptance. This gave me validation and the impetus to continue writing. It keeps me connected and engaged. Without the Encore writer’s group, I probably would never have been able to express myself in such an honest way. It gave me the courage to keep writing and share my life.”
I myself have been doing pro-bono design work for Encore for the last fifteen years. I approached the person at Encore about three years ago who ran their educational programs, and originally asked if I could teach a collage class. They told me that they already had art classes, and then asked me if I would be interested in teaching creative writing. I had never studied writing, but I have worked with writers and editors my entire life. I was excited to do a class where I could learn alongside the Encore members as I taught them. There was something special about us all having parallel experiences.
To me, the most important part of having started this group is getting to amplify the voices of the Encore community. Everyone has a story, and those stories deserve to be heard. Listening to the members of the group share their lives and helping them to find ways to share themselves with others outside of the group, has been an incredible gift. The people in this group and the work that we have done together shifted the trajectory of my life for the better, and in putting together this piece, it has touched me to hear that they feel the same way.