Igniting the Writer’s Fire: Angela Burton’s writing program for seniors is proving that it’s never too late to tell your life story.
Written by Sarah Kinbar | Photo by Kylene White
Quite often the best ideas start as a passion project in someone’s living room. Stoked by the fury of a vision, many people set out to create something special, strike gold and never look back. That’s Angela Burton’s story in a nutshell. Inspired by her father who, as he aged, spent years writing stories, essays, and poems; an idea was sparked that guiding seniors through the process of transforming their memories into beautifully-written stories, would help enrich their mental awareness and increase their well-being.
Angela founded her brainchild in 2015 and gave it the name Feet to the Fire Writers’ Workshops®. The program, which she started in her Louisville home, has been growing exponentially and changing lives in senior living communities well beyond Kentucky.
“When I started working with older adults, I noticed very quickly how eager they were to share long-held memories,” Angela says. “Each story they wrote was as complex as the person with significant details and perspectives. I watched them experience a sort of catharsis, clear autonomy and eventual happiness at being able to recall their particular lives through their written stories.”
Having earned her Master of Fine Arts degree in writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, Angela taught at the college level for years, but felt a greater calling to do something even more impactful. “At some point, I was like, where am I going? What am I doing?” she says. “I decided to do this project, and people started signing up to come to my living room weekly.”
Even her children questioned why she was inviting strangers into their home. On recalling the humble beginnings of her program Angela says, “I think that people want to gather and have accountability.”
The very first workshop meeting included eight people, to be precise. Afterward, Angela named and trademarked the concept immediately. “I literally thought, ‘I’m gonna make this something. There was a lot of intentionality about it,” she says.
By 2019 Angela had taken the program to a retirement community in Louisville. She grew it beyond “making others happy and making me happy” to productizing the program as a six-week series with the tagline, “Sparking connection through writing. Kindling stories into legacy.”
The outcomes for the program participants have been phenomenal but Angela says it’s to be expected as the benefits of engaging seniors in a process like hers is grounded in research.
“There’s much evidence that writing is a healing pursuit; people can process not only positive experiences but also uncomfortable ones,” she says. “Those who participate in Feet to the Fire explore all topics, and emotions are gladly released through the power of their stories. That experience gets further validation because they are doing so in a safe, nurturing group of other people who support and care for each other as friends.”
Angela points to her collaboration with the Centre for Aging and Brain Health Innovation (CABHI), an organization that helps innovators develop, disseminate, scale, and promote adoption of promising innovations in the aging and brain health sector.
“Our objective was to test the program for 12 weeks with CABHI participants, and they did surveys before and after the program,” she says. “The biggest thing that we saw was a 31% increase in people’s sense of purpose. Similarly, we saw a 30% increase in social connection and a 26% increase in feeling connected to the world around them.”
Considering this, Feet to the Fire Writers’ Workshops® is charting an important course, which is very much in line with Angela’s mission to expand its reach and ultimately flourish by take on a life of its own. The mission is very much on target.
Now, thousands of people – primarily women – enjoy and benefit from the program. The adjacent podcast, the Feet to the Fire Writers’ Workshops Out Loud, is heard in 17 countries. Angela has heard positive feedback from people as far afield as Kenya, Taiwan, and Holland.
“When I began Feet to the Fire, it was only natural that my living room would become the hub for connectedness,” she says. “Knowing I’ve somehow touched so many lives by allowing them to feel welcome to write fills me with my own sense of joy and accomplishment. I will be forever proud of the fire I started.”
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