Right before the first project of Life Stories of St. Stephen’s Terrace started, you could hear the group of seven lively seniors from outside the building. With the help of Rose Mabwa, our contact at St. Stephen’s Terrace, everyone settled down and we explained to the residents why we were meeting.

St. Stephen’s Terrace is a housing complex on the Near West Side that is now managed by The Community Builders (TCB), a non-profit organization that revitalizes large-scale distressed housing projects in an attempt to build a stronger community.[i] With locations all over the country, TCB plans, finances, develops, and operates high-quality affordable housing.[ii]  As part of their new ownership, the entirety of St. Stephen’s Terrace is going through physical renovations during the next two years. St. Stephen’s Terrace has seen a lot of changes around their area, but no renovations have been done to this property in many years.

As St. Stephen’s Terrace undergoes construction, the senior residents have voiced concerns. Since there will be a lot of movement with the residents during construction, many residents feel that they will be giving up the homes they have had for years—even decades—and some seniors feel that they are now unsure of what their home is. Rose was adamant about providing the seniors with a way that they can share their concerns and talk about their lives at St. Stephen’s; Life Stories of St. Stephen’s Terrace was a result.

During the program, residents and volunteers work together to make scrapbooks of St. Stephen’s Terrace. The seven senior participants take photos of their homes, their neighborhood, and anything that they feel is an important part of their life at this facility. With the help of Chicago Cares volunteers, the seniors create scrapbooks of the photos that document these stories. Through this program, the senior residents are provided with a social and creative outlet where they can express their feelings and observations about the changes that are occurring; they will be able to reflect on the experiences they have had at St. Stephen’s and how the changes will affect their future at this facility.

As we had our first session of the project, the residents shared their memories of St. Stephen’s Terrace, and they discussed the transitions that they have been a part of.  One resident, Ms. Miller*, has lived at St. Stephen’s Terrace since 1984, and over the past 28 years, she has memories of St. Stephen’s that she will never forget. “I remember when St. Stephen’s had a daycare. My grandson attended the school, and all the kids made hand-prints outside of the building’s front entrance. The hand-prints are still there today.”

Although Ms. Miller has positive memories of the facility, she also recalled memories that are not as encouraging. Ms. Miller and the other participants talked about the facility from when they first moved in to the state it is in now, and how it has dwindled. They discussed the transformation of the neighborhood, how their homes have reflected this, and how they hope it can get better.  As one resident said at our program that day, “Just because I don’t have money, that doesn’t mean I can’t live nice.”

Life Stories gives our volunteers an opportunity to interact with our clients in a new way. Yes, the program started as a social outlet for the seniors, and as a way for them to discuss the changes that are happening to their home. However, this program provides Chicago Cares volunteers with a unique way to get to know our community partners, our clients, and a community area of Chicago that they might not interact with on a regular basis. Our programs are successful when volunteers can leave the program with new information, a new connection, or a new insight into an issue or community area that was once unfamiliar to them; that is what I have been doing at Life Stories, and I encourage you to do the same by signing up to volunteer at St. Stephen’s Terrace.

*Name changed for privacy reasons.