Timeless Connections Through Literature

Daily News-Record  12/12/19
Stemming from an affinity for literature, students from Eastern Mennonite University are forming relationships with residents in assisted living at Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community. But since establishing a connection through storytelling, that bond has since evolved into friendships that defy ideological differences.
“The pattern is initial discomfort and then growing warmth, strong sense of connection and then a little bit of recognition of difference and then having to try to negotiate, ‘ We aren’t alike politically or theologically or whatever, but this is my friend,’ and that’s a pretty quick course of discovery in a friendship,” English profession Marti Eads said.
Eads taught EMU’s first bibliotherapy course this semester as an internship in the language and linguistic department, which can be taken for or without credit. As a pilot program, Eads originally planned to revisit the class idea next fall, but she said the project was such a success that she intends to bring it back in the spring.
Windsor Westbrook Sherrill, associate vice president for health research at Clemson University, has rekindled modern interest in the historical method of holistic literature therapy by combining reading with verbal communication. Sherrill is a friend of Eads who presented a lecture at EMU earlier this year about the research- based training program for pre- professional health students.
After attending the lecture, many students asked for a similar program to be established at the university.
“We said, ‘Why can’t we do that here?’ I mean, VMRC is in our backyard,” senior biology major Melissa Kinkaid said. “My plan is to become a doctor, so being able to interact with anyone, I think, is a really valuable skill.”
Majority of students in Eads’ class are biology undergraduate students pursuing medical professions. In addition to the beneficial experience for pre- medical students, the course ultimately resulted in many close friendships. Wednesday night, students and residents cast their books aside and gathered at VMRC to split scones and tea in a foyer to celebrate the connections they formed since meeting in September.
Kinkaid and her assigned resident Lois Alexander chatted back and forth like old friends at the tea party. When asked what they enjoy talking about: “Everything —,” Kinkaid started. “And anything,” completed Alexander. “Simple things from the weather to family, history, Lois giving me dating advice — the important things,” Kinkaid said.
Each student visited their resident in assisted living at least once per week. For those who took the course for credit, the final assignment is to write a paper describing their project and experience to a prospective employer.
Senior biology major Caroline Lehman is considering presenting her paper to the nursing facility where she works summers to see if she can help it establish a bibliotherapy program.
Lehman read a novel to resident Ruth Heatwole, who is blind and said reading without assistance is impossible due to her faulty vision and memory.
“It’s wonderful. I don’t know what to say about that. She’s very good about keeping me up with what we’ve just read in case I lose track of the story, or it doesn’t quite all compute,” Heatwole said.
Through playing the name game upon meeting, Lehman and Heatwole discovered it really is a small world after all. Heatwole had previously lived in Charlottesville while Lehman’s grandfather studied medicine in the area, so the two became good friends and Heatwole sung at Lehman’s grandparent’s wedding.
Resident Ruth Miller and English and writing senior Anali Martin began their friendship over books but eventually discovered a shared interest in embroidery. Eventually, the twice a week visits to Miller’s dwelling were filled with more needlework than page flipping.
While some pairs dabbled in art, others stayed immersed in their readings and cast aside political assumptions to discuss modern dilemmas.
Gladys Brown is a resident who previously adored reading before her vision made books inaccessible. Before being partnered with biology senior Rachel Musselman, Brown relied on audio books to enjoy narrations. Together, the pair read “Assimilate or Go Home,” which shares the perspective of an American missionary working with low income housing Somalian refugees.
“We’ve talked about lots of things. We’ve covered just about every topic in the book,” Musselman said.