Students at Haddonfield Middle School will have the chance to participate in a four-week youth leadership training academy beginning next month.
The Best Day of My Life So Far Grand Camp will be led by students in the school’s gifted and talented program who will hear from local seniors. Each week, students will learn a new letter in the acronym BEST (Be yourself, Ease into it, Stick with it, Tell your story) to help them gain better skills for listening to seniors who tell their stories.
Although young people have always been involved in the nonprofit’s activities, this is the first time the listening aspect will be emphasized.
The project began in 2009, when Best Day of My Life So Far founder and local architect Benita Cooper gathered older adults in Philadelphia to help them share their stories during a six-week program. She was inspired by conversations she had with her late grandmother.
“I only started calling her when I was 25 years old,” Cooper recalled. ” … I thought we would run out of things to say in a few minutes, but instead, she started talking and she opened up to me about a devastating story from her childhood.
“What really struck me was when she was done, I asked if I could call to hear more stories from the past, and she laughed the happiest laugh I’ve ever heard, from her or anybody,” Cooper added. “And I realized with one single phone call, we became closer than we had ever been before.”
The name Best Day of My Life So Far comes from Cooper’s memory of how her grandmother’s laughter sounded.
“I wanted to share my experience with people young and old,” she said, “this feeling of connection with the older generation, so I started the first storytelling group, thinking maybe if I get these older adults to share their stories, their family members near or far to read those stories and get to know a more true version of their aging parents or aging grandparents,” she noted.
Best Day of My Life So Far will lead the Grand Camp program at Haddonfield Middle School so it can engage younger kids. Cooper explained that there have always been young people involved in the nonprofit’s activities through volunteering, but the Grand Camp also gives them the opportunity to engage in active listening more formally than before.
“All these years, teenagers and youth have always been a part of this work, but they were never our focus,” she related. “But with Grand Camp, for the first time, we’re giving focus to the listening half of the storytelling loop …
“We’re training youth to participate,” Cooper added. “We’re empowering them and equipping them with skills that have to do with communication and listening being a subset of communication, and in that way, we’re preparing them to be community leaders one day in whatever they choose to do.”
The hope is that by the end of the project, stories will be gathered into a collection, though the format has not yet been determined.
Haddonfield Memorial High School ninth grader Harrison Berman – who completed his bar mitzvah project with Best Day of My Life So Far when he was a young teen – talked with family members, grandparents, friends and even passers-by to create short videos that captured their stories.
“It makes one realize that everyone is different and everyone came through different place and everyone has a back story, everything that happens shapes how a person becomes,” Berman pointed out.
“You realize more about people in the world.”
Best Day of My Life So Far is seeking older adults to pair with eighth grade teams for story sharing. To participate, email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject, Grand Camp at Haddonfield Middle School. To learn more, visit bestdayofmylifesofar.org