To Wailin Gonzalez-Caminero, a senior at Elmont Memorial High School, making memories is the most important part of living.
The memories of Elmont Memorial High School students and Elmont residents will soon be preserved through a project led by high school students, staff and the Elmont Memorial Library that will detail the life stories of students and community members as recounted in recorded conversations that will be published online through StoryCorps, the National Public Radio (NPR) show that documents shared personal experiences.
Five years ago, Christine Fulgieri, the librarian at Elmont Memorial High School, began collaborating with the school’s English department on a project that documents the life stories of students after being inspired by StoryCorps.
Originally, Fulgieri sought to boost the communication and listening skills of the ninth-grade students that participate in the project. During up to two-week-long visits to the library per class, students discuss their stories together, practicing communication and listening skills.
At the end of the project, with full knowledge of their partner’s life story, students interviewed each other, fully fleshing out the details in a recorded conversation that would be shared with the class.
“Everyone’s history matters This is a chance for you to talk about who you are, your experience of life … I have to be myself,” Gonzalez-Caminero, who is originally from the Dominican Republic and shared his story for the project, said of the benefit students have experienced participating in the project.
“You can learn about yourself, and you have to think about you,” Gonzalez-Caminero, who recounted his story as a gay person who has struggled in his relationship with his mother due to his sexuality, added.
After the coronavirus pandemic began, Fulgieri grew inspired to continue documenting the experiences of students but also begin unearthing the stories of Elmont community members.
“We have such a beautifully diverse community, and everyone has a story to tell and wants their story to be heard,” Fulgieri said. “All of our stories are valuable … whether you’re a teenager or an 80-year-old, we all have something to bring to the table,” she added.
High school students are working with the Elmont Memorial Library to interview library patrons, documenting their stories. Once recorded and uploaded online through StoryCorps, stories shared by students and residents will be preserved digitally in the library’s historical archive as well as at the Library of Congress.
Elmont Memorial High School 11th grade student Ajayda Griffith began speaking to residents at the public library one month ago. “Through meeting with some of the elders in Elmont, I plan to ask all the right questions and unlock some of the more personal history hidden here in Elmont,” Griffith said.
“This project is quite special to me in comparison to my others because it allows me to form a stronger connection to my community,” Griffith said. “I think it is incredibly important to hear and share these stories with as many as possible while we still have the chance,” she added.
Cara Cutron, an ENL teacher at the high school who has worked closely with Fulgieri to coordinate the project through her classes, said sharing stories has been a positive experience for students, including many who do not speak English as a first language. “They have the unique experience of coming to this country and they bring a lot of unique perspectives to the table and stories that they can share,” said of these students and their stories.
Cutron said she commonly pairs students whose first languages are not English to encourage deeper communication of their experiences. “It became this really nice, almost therapeutic experience for a lot of students,” Cutron said of the effect the project has had on the students, who she added find commonalities through speaking and expressing experiences they are normally unable to air out in the classroom.
“It was my hope that the broader audience would someday see these and have that feeling of connection with kids who they might not have connected with or had empathy for and would look at them with a little more respect after hearing these stories,” the ENL teacher added.
Cutron said over 100 students have partaken in the project, which started during the 2016-2017 school year, and that they have reveled in the experience.
“It makes everyone feel closer and connected at the end,” Cutron said of the effect the project has had on students.
While students recently began interviewing residents at the library, community members can answer a list of 35 questions online to share their own stories. Responses can be submitted at https://archive.storycorps.org/question-lists/elmont-memorial-high-school-community-questions/.