Brittany Bare, founder of My Life, My Stories, on running a life story non-profit
Like a lot of us, Brittany Bare was inspired by a relationship with a close relative to make the jump into the life story business. Where she's different from most, though, is that she's set up My Life, My Stories as a 501(c)(3)—a non-profit organization. On this episode, she talks about matching volunteers to seniors, serving seniors from under-represented populations (including those who speak a foreign language), and pitching her program to residential facilities and community centers.
Transcript of the interview with Brittany Bare of My Life, My Stories
Amy: I have lots of questions for you about your organization, but can you start by telling us how you discovered that this was what you wanted to do to help people preserve their stories?
Brittany Bare: Yeah. I was working 70 plus hours a week in London at being very miserable in life and not really enjoying what I was doing at the time. And I decided to quit my job, moved back to Ohio, which is where I was born and raised and where my parents still live. So I was a late 20 something year old living with my parents unemployed. And while I was searching for a new job, I got to spend a lot of time with my grandma there. Her name's Gram. And other than those meetings that I spent with her, I never really spent time with her outside of holidays. So having this special time allowed me to get to know her much more than I ever had in my entire life.
Brittany Bare: And through those meetings she gave me autobiographies written by her parents, my great grandparents, who I either never met or had met when I was very young. So I never, I never knew them as people. So I, as I was reading the stories about, especially my great grandfather, he fought in WWII. He started the first Women's Army Corps. He was a professor at various universities around the country, a published person in the education world. And you know, I never really knew this about my family history before. So it was super eye opening, really interesting. I was able to talk to my grandmother about her life and her family and what it was like to grow up in Oregon. And as I got thinking about this, I was wondering how I could help others who might not have the means or the resources to use a typewriter and type out their entire life story and preserve life legacies for people like me, great grandchildren, grandchildren, friends. So that's how it all started and my grandmother has been passed away, but the organization still continues in her name and you know, we're trying to grow it as much as I can because I know it's impacted her in terms of, you know, what we were able to talk about and the people I've worked with since then.
Amy: Brittany Bare, that's really interesting. So the autobiographies that she gave you, those were actually your grandparents who had written those stories.
Brittany Bare: My great grandparents wrote their stories. Oh yeah. And they had there, there's only one copy in existence and so it was really cool to see all those stories down on paper and that's kind of how I got that. The idea of starting My Life, My Story.
Amy: Yeah. That's wonderful. And that's, you know, oftentimes when people come to me and say, I'm thinking about having my life story done, or if the adult children come, there's sometimes resistance because they think that, you know, who am I to have this done? And usually all you have to say as well, has anybody done this in your family before, do you have any written memoir or written account of somebody else, an earlier generation in your family? And if they have it then instantly they recognize the value that their story is going to have for coming generations. And if they don't then usually they feel regret that they don't, you know, that they didn't, they never got to hear it in their grandparents own words or their parents own words about their life because there's just so much change between one generation to the next, especially these days.
Amy: But, but even in earlier generations, there was a lot of change. And so we, well, I'm preaching to the choir here, but you know, there's so much that we don't know about the earlier generations, just even the way that they live their life. So it's such a boon when we discover something that's written. So I'm happy that you got to see that you have that in your family and that it was your inspiration. I think that's. That's great too, so okay. You founded My Life, My Stories, and you decided to do that as a nonprofit organization. Can you start off by telling us first of all what that looks like, so how, how does it run? How do you find people who want to have their stories done in? Tell us a little bit about that.
Brittany Bare: Yeah, it's a learning process, but what I do is I partner with a organization in the bay area, which is where I'm currently living, so independent living facilities, nursing homes, senior community centers, a Jewish community centers, other organization that helps seniors in this area and I basically pitch our program to these organized abuse at companies or organizations and if they're interested in learning more, I usually come in and meet with you. The program director or the activities director or an executive of the center that I'm speaking to and if they're still interested in moving forward and making this known to their either residents or community members, I then go in and usually give a presentation at one of their weekly meetings or regularly scheduled meetings are another class and I kind of like do a pitch over and over again to solicit interest and get the word out.
Brittany Bare: And I do run into issues like you mentioned, Amy, that, you know, people don't see the value sometimes in preserving that story. So I kind of have to explain the importance of preserving life legacy and the process that we go through. And there's another element to our program which I think is unique in that I helped pair one volunteer with one senior and those two people meet. Um, oh, regularly. So a relationship is formed with someone of a different generation typically. And so you have that other person in your life who made me seniors that I work with sometimes don't have anyone. And um, so that's an extra benefit to joining the program. And so I, I have to basically do a sales pitch over and over again to, to recruit seniors and then also on the other side, a recruit volunteers. So that's one of my other challenges I'm running into is getting the staff I guess you would call it to, to keep up with the demand of the number of seniors who are interested in doing this program because it is free. Um, and we're trying to make the process of documenting their life as easy as possible.
Amy: So when you say that you sit down and you have a meeting, you're meeting actually with like the administration at these? And is it mostly, um, are the people that you're serving, are they mostly in assisted living or are these retirement residences?
Brittany Bare: It's a mix. And I think I'd say I do a lot of stories for people who are independent living on their own, but our members have a senior community center because these people are already involved in the community. They go to classes about the arts, whether that's ceramics or singing or theater. So they're already pretty engaged and active and they, these people are typically really interested in documenting their history. But on the flip side, I do want to focus a lot more on those people who are in the nursing homes and independent or living facilities and low income resident housing here in San Francisco who may not have family or don't have a lot of resources available to them to go to these classes. And that's where I really didn't want to focus my efforts moving forward and getting access to those underrepresented populations like you mentioned, like low income minorities, immigrants, Lgbtq and getting and people of different languages, which is something that's difficult, but to find a volunteers to speak a native English language like Russian. But somehow I'm making it happen. So that's kind of the process.
Amy: Back when I lived in St Louis, I'm from St Louis and I live in Kansas City now, but I'm, I still, you know, my family is in St Louis and I have friends in St Louis and one of my friends who I was in a writing group with, she, she's a bit older and for a time she lived in this one building just outside of St Louis in the suburbs and it's a high rise and for whatever reason there were an awful lot of Russian and Chinese immigrants who live there. So they were recent immigrants to St Louis and I just was trying to rack my brain like how, you know, how many stories can you even imagine the stories that they must have to tell. But I, I, I am a one man outfit as far as the interviewing and the writing goes. So I didn't have the resources for that. But I think that's great that you have broadened your, your scope and you're trying to serve those communities because. Oh man, I mean, for one thing it would be just fascinating to sit down and listen to them. Um, you know, not to mention what a gift it would be for them to have their stories recorded. Okay. So when you say classes, are they, um, are you going into these residential communities and you're, you're teaching people how to write their own stories or how does that all work and what, what do you mean by classes?
Brittany Bare: Oh yeah. So on a lot of these community centers that are in San Francisco have offered classes around our, our, you know, our talking circles and I don't participate in those. I just come and visit because those are the people maybe that might be interested in our program and I kind of get a little, give a little pitch sales talk in the beginning or at the end and I am available to answer questions if people may be interested, but I do, I don't have writing classes now. It's something I maybe want to explore in the future because I know those are very popular so people can write their own memoirs, but I really want, I like to focus on the opportunity for our volunteers and the seniors to get the benefit out of speaking to someone of a different generation. So that's where our focus is right now.
Amy: [inaudible]. And then when you do find a volunteer, you successfully pair up a volunteer with the storyteller. What does that look like for them?
Brittany Bare: Yeah, so I meet with volunteers on a regular basis, just one-on-one, ask them about why they might be interested in and helping what their level of commitment is. It is quite a big commitment because you are speaking to someone regularly. I mean, I don't put any parameters on it. I would prefer that it's weekly, so you get through the process faster and it's not dragged on too long. But um, maybe it's every other week or a couple times a month, um, where they would meet with a senior. I'm just definitely make sure that they're available to do that and able to commit. And then um, I asked whether or not they have a preference on male or female, what type of person they may be interested in. It's not a scientific process, but, and then I also asked the senior if they have any preference or what type of person they want and you know, if they speak another language, they have a native language that they prefer to speak in. I try to get a volunteer who also speaks that native language live a little database growing and that's probably the hardest part in terms of logistics and coordination as tearing the volunteer up with the right senior. And it's never a, it's never a pr, like sometimes on a perfect match. So it takes maybe a few times but I typically meet with the senior and the volunteer fair the first time everyone's meeting. So I'm available to answer questions to kind of get things off the ground and see it as an extra person.
Amy: And then how often do the volunteers usually meet with the storyteller? And how long does the whole process take usually in and what does the product look like at the end or what does the book look like at the end?
Brittany Bare: Sure. So the volunteers meet with senior seniors anywhere from once a week to once every other week and they, their sessions lasts maybe around an hour, no more than two hours because I think there's a little bit of a fatigue on both ends of listening and speaking. I agree with that. Um, and then I use the ivory conversation is recorded. Those recordings are sent to me. I, I keep track of everything. I use a professional transcription service and I have other volunteers who may be have more limited time availability who just helped me edit the conversations in the recordings into readable content. And then we take those edited manuscripts and document and I use a self publishing software called blurb. I'm sure I'll have people heard of that or used it and that safe and San Francisco and I'll use the trade book hardcover setting that they have. And people have pictures. We include those. But I know I've listened to heirloom books a few weeks ago and it's nothing compared to the amount of work. I think her name was. Don does, but we try to professional. Yeah. We've tried to create a professional, very long lasting book that they can be proud of. We usually put a photo on the front cover or they can provide their own artwork. Um, so it's really up to the senior at how, how detailed are creative they want the book to be.
Amy: And how long are the books usually?
Brittany Bare: Yeah. So Nate Barry for sure on a lot of seniors are definitely more talkative than others. And I find that women are a lot more open about a lot more things in their lives. So anywhere from 100 pages, probably the ideal. We don't start from, you know, the day you were born to present day and it varies person to person, what they want to talk about. Some people wanting to talk about, you know, family and important milestones in their life, other people. Um, when I talk about a specific time period in our life, we have a senior right now who's documenting her experience living in San Francisco during the eighties, during the aids epidemic and how her involvement was because she wanted to focus on that time period of her life. So, um, you know, anywhere from 100, 150 pages is what we aim for.
Amy: I know on your website you have a, your community partners that you're working with is, are they making financial commitments to you or is this all a labor of love on your part? Because it sounds like especially if you're doing all of the editing that is, this has got to be a very big time commitment on your part.
Brittany Bare: Yes. I currently don't ask for any financial contribution from our partners. It's something I may be start to think about in the future because it is quite time consuming, which there is no formal price to your time, but I want to have a life and I also, you know, to pay the bills. I still work in advertising, so I have a full time job on top of this.
Amy: Oh my gosh, Brittany, you are a busy woman.
Brittany Bare: Um, and, but I think we have a lot of volunteers helping with different parts of the process. The editing process does take the longest time for sure. And I have, you know, anyone, I have a few um, English major students out of Utah who founded my organization and have volunteered to help with the editing process. So it's like I have a bunch of people helping me put this all together, but you know, I do do think in the future maybe for some of the populations that have a little bit more financial stability to maybe offer a price that the cost of the book. So we put a cap on the number of books we give to people for free so each senior can get three hardcover copies of their books for free and any additional copy they have to pay for out of pocket. So.
Amy: So who, who's covering those costs because I'm sure blurbs not giving them to you for free.
Brittany Bare: No, and I've even asked them for a discount and they haven't given it to me, but it's all through donations and fundraising efforts on my end, private donations. I'm, I'm starting to get a little bit of grant money to support the program, but I'm learning as I go and know. One of the things that I'm, I'm experiencing through applying for a lot of grants is that in the grant, the personal warning that grant wants to see how your nonprofit or your program or project that they're, you're asking funding for how that benefits the community. So right now all of my stories are private and I don't publish anything to the public, so I'm starting to organize these open mic night for the seniors that participate in the storytelling program to create their memoirs and the, I give them an opportunity to come to these open mic nights in San Francisco. Did share a story around a theme. I don't know if you've heard of the moth.
Amy: Yes, of course. Yes.
Brittany Bare: Yeah. So it's at a low budget version of that.
Amy: Oh my gosh, I am so impressed. So these are actually seniors who, who are getting up there and taking the mic.
Brittany Bare: Yeah. So I haven't gotten it yet. Our first one is scheduled for early November and I'm really excited. The theme is around what brought you to San Francisco. So through my experience talking to a bunch of these seniors in San Francisco a lot, most of them, almost all of them are not from this area. They either from a different country or different part of the United States and they all have different reasons of why San Francisco appeal to them. And I thought that was fascinating and you know, there are still a lot of really young transplants like myself who are not from the area either and you know, somehow sometimes I found commonalities between what the seniors are saying. Boston to San Francisco, which is why I was brought to San Francisco. So I thought it was super interesting and I want to share that with others, but that's going to be our first one open mic night in, in early November. And I'm really excited about that.
Amy: I love the idea of having something explicitly for seniors where they're getting up and they're having the chance to tell their stories in public and obviously there's that secondary goal of getting grant money because I've heard that too, that you have to show how it's going to benefit the community and not just a private individual, but you know, in my mind any of these stories that we're doing, it's on an individual basis, but it's, it benefits so many people to have these stories told and just to help kind of bridge the generations, not necessarily just within a family, but like you said, if it's based around a community, I think that's a wonderful service. Yeah. Good for you. I'm very impressed with that. So you said that you, you're applying for grants, but you also get donations and you have fundraisers. Um, is that something that you do often? Is that something that you, it's just hit or miss or talk a little bit about that, how you, how you bring in the donations and what kind of fundraisers or use.
Brittany Bare: Yeah, so I started with a large sum of money. Actually, my really good friend of mine shut down her nonprofit, so whatever she had in the bank she gave to me. So that was a good starting point. Um, and I read most recently about six months ago, I kinda ran low and in the funding department. So, um, I made a big effort around raising money during giving Tuesday, which is the Tuesday after thanksgiving, you know, you have black Friday or black Friday or Monday, they're starting to do this thing giving Tuesday, um, where you use a national movement to donate money to a organization. So we, we raise a lot of money there and raise a lot of money during the holiday season and Christmas time. Um, and then most recently we have a happy our fundraisers and there's really not a lot of overhead that I need a set of books can cost maybe around $200 and the transcription services or maybe about $200 or less per person. So, you know, the biggest resource that I'm lacking our time. Um, and, and volunteered time. That recruiting for that and getting more time is, is the hardest job is the biggest challenge?
Amy: No. Just in case any listeners are interested in volunteering, do they have to be local to the San Francisco area?
Brittany Bare: No, absolutely. I'm, one of my goals is to bring this program nationally and I actually do have a few volunteers, one who's most successful is in Utah and she's a woman kind of doing the exact same thing I'm doing, but which is my materials and my name and make it a more official. So my goal is to create chapters throughout the country where, you know, a person leading that area. I can manage the volunteer database and things like that. So slowly but surely if people do want to help out more than happy to give them what I have, I have, I'm starting to build this chapter kit which includes sample books, pamphlets and, and materials that help the pitching and sales process, um, contact information. So that's definitely something that I'd be interested in and if anyone wants to reach out to me, I'm more than happy to talk to them.
Amy: Okay, great. Right. Um, and will include any contact information in the show notes too. Okay. Okay. I just have to ask, have you ever started a, a not for profit before because you sound like you sound like, you know, all of the angles and all of the things, you know, like starting these new chapters and having a chapter kid. I'm impressed with that. Have you done this before in some other area?
Brittany Bare: No, I haven't had a learning process and you know, I learned from my mistakes and I'm trying things out and I'm constantly asking for feedback. I probably need to formalize the feedback portion of it. I've, I've heard a few of your speakers on your program talk about surveys and things like that, so I'm always asking the volunteers and the authors to provide feedback on their experience working with us. And I asked the, the grant funding for their feedback on why I was rejected and so I'm just constantly taking that and making updates and you know, learning from others by networking and you know, people like you. I just discovered through the Internet. And so it's just a constant learning process. I'm in advertising. I did work for a very short period of time on nonprofit clients, so I have a little bit of an understanding, but it's really been, you know, a grassroots learn and fail and learn and fail and iterate as you go. Yeah. Yeah.
Amy: And do you have any support team that's helping you with this? I mean, I know you said that you have some volunteers, but do you have anybody who's really, you know, helping you with the administrative side of it or keeping track of the databases, that kind of thing?
Brittany Bare: No, not really. I'm on the Board at a nonprofit is required to have, you know, trying to get them more involved. But it is really a one man effort. I have started to explore, um, sales for us as a potential way to organize my donor database and volunteer.
Amy: No, it's a, is that an APP? An online app? Salesforce?
Brittany Bare: Um, it's like I said as a cloud based system, I'm still learning about it, but a lot of nonprofit or nonprofits use it to manage their people databases and to keep track of actions and donors and, and I know of for profit companies use it to, for sales purposes, so learning about that system versus having a million different spreadsheets and constantly trying to keep those up to date, which is quite a task. So I don't have it perfected that process yet.
Amy: Well, when did you, when did you start My Life, My Stories?
Brittany Bare: It's been about a year and a half.
Amy: Oh, so you're, you're pretty much in the new stages still. Yeah. I'm sure you're learning a lot as you go along. If, if people do want to volunteer, especially people who are not in San Francisco area, what kinds of tasks would they be expected or could they expect to help you with?
Brittany Bare: Yeah, so we need help editing transcription, but organizing the content. I'm not, I don't pitch myself and our program as you know, helping seniors write a professional grade memoir that is definitely a full time job. And, you know, we, we just want to document the stories and there are some, there's a lot of editing that goes into the process of transcribing oral history into written history as a lot of your listeners probably know. So there's a lot of editing that needs help with and um, you know, just getting access to more seniors. You know, I only have so many volunteers. Vale in San Francisco, so there's senior homes all around the country. So dryness program is I think simple. If we have the right, the, the number of people available.
Amy: I just so appreciate the service. I mean I know there's lots of hospice programs that use volunteers to record people's stories and there are veterans programs that do the same. But the fact that you're reaching out to low income people that your region, you know, reaching out to people who are marginalized. I've often wondered. We have in Kansas City, there's quite a few homeless people and I'm sure there's even more in San Francisco and I'm thinking, you know, like to be able to have a service where you can say, hey, if you're interested, we'll help you record your story. I wish that everybody had access to having their life story preserved. The fact that you're doing the open mic nights I think is a wonderful service to the community. So you said that you have one starting in November, is that at a public venue?
Brittany Bare: Yeah, I bought a local bookstore who has regular, like poetry open mic night. So we're tacking on to the, one of the end of one of those. They graciously offered their space for free. So that's another cost saving factor of, of doing something publicly. Yeah.
Amy: It's a way for, for the seniors to, to connect with any kind of person who's going to wander into the bookstores. So, you know, that's another way of building those bridges.
Brittany Bare: Um, I don't know if you've heard of story car, but I'm trying to mimic a lot of the strategies that they have introduced and started. But they're the gold standard in terms of storytelling, nonprofit were all. So I, I pick up and I copy that's there. What they do.
Amy: Very good. Well this is interesting to hear about and I wish you all the luck going forward. So you said that you wanted to have, you know, take this nationwide five years from now or even three years from now. What do you see it looking like?
Brittany Bare: Yeah. So yeah, I, I really admire organizations like habitat for humanity or Sierra club where they have self standing and self sufficient chapters that kind of make that, make it their own, make the organization uniquely different across the nation. And so my goal is to over maybe a five or 10 year ban is to create the foundation to allow people to really take ownership of bringing this to their community and to build their community resources and build their volunteers. So it's kind of self standing. But I know that's a long ways away from now. So focusing on San Francisco and getting that off the ground is my main priority right now. And just learning and perfecting the process. Yeah.
Amy: Right. And I think the timing is the timing is right for something like this, there's just so much interest in family history and personal history and I'm also wondering, so the life story coach podcast goes out to a lot of listeners who are working in the field, not as a volunteer but actually earning a living doing this. So people who are possibly new to the field or just getting into the field. I see how volunteering would be a great opportunity to learn more about it, to actually learn about the work and whether it's something that somebody really does want to do. So, you know, I, I definitely want people, listeners out there to consider whether they want to volunteer their time with you because it, it, you know, it could be just a win win situation for a lot of people to just build up those skills.
Amy: And just to go back to what you said, I always kind of laughing. You were talking about how the transcripts are edited, but they're not typically what we would see in a finished book. But back when I first started the prescribe one of my services because I wanted to just cast the net very wide, so one of the services that I offered was lightly edited transcripts and I am telling you, Brittany, I know how much you must be working because you can say it's lightly edited, but as soon as you start moving things around in a transcript and there was nothing late in labor about it, even if you don't end up with something that is one flaw, long flowing narrative that you would typically see in a book, it's still an awful lot of work. So, um, yeah, I, I feel for you
Brittany Bare: It is hard. I fell off that the hardest part of I think the entire process is getting something that the author is happy with that makes sense and concise and people can follow easily. Readers can understand and you know, you, you the, the author's wants to be really proud of their work. So I try to do my best to make it as high quality as possible. But there has to be some tipping.
Amy: Yeah. Well, and to be honest, even if it were a for profit project, there's, there's a limit there too because you know, any, any writer who's working on their own creative writing knows you can eternally tinker with something and improve it, but you have to come to a stopping point. Well that's even more so when a client is paying you for what you're doing, you know you have to come to a stopping point and so the projects are never going to be perfect. You just have to do absolutely the best that you can. So good for you. Well, can you tell people where they can reach you if they wanted to volunteer for you or if they want to maybe start a chapter in their own community?
Brittany Bare: Yeah. So you can check out my website at My Life, My Stories and all my contact information is there. Or you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And then I'm, I try to respond asap cause you know, the more, the more people on board the why do we can cast our net and help others. Great. Great.
Amy: Well thank you for sharing all of this today and um, good luck going in the future. I, it sounds like you are on the right path. So it's sounds like you have really found what you need to be doing.
Brittany Bare: Thanks, Amy. Really appreciate it.