The Living Histories of Athens

By definition, a capstone project is a “multifaceted assignment that serves as a culminating academic and intellectual experience for students, typically during their final year schooling.” For Paige Chambers, Bridget Hale and Richelle Matarazzo, all recent graduates from the University of Georgia in the School of Social Work, they found inspiration for their Capstone project on social media.

“The blueprint of the idea came from the Humans of New York Instagram account. Its platform shares mini stories and personal experiences of everyday people.” Matarazzo said. “I wanted to do something similar.”

Humans of New York began over a decade ago as a photography project to capture those living in the city that never sleeps. It has since grown into an extensive catalog of stories behind the faces captured in the photographs with a fanbase of over 20 million across social media platforms.

When it came time to determine their own project, Paige Chambers and Richelle Matarazzo felt Athens-area seniors had great stories to share. “We wanted to gather stories from their lives and from their COVID-19 experiences,” Chambers said. “Seniors have incredible stories and life lessons to offer that are often overlooked.”

Fellow student Bridget Hale agreed, and they reached out to the Athens Community Council on Aging (ACCA) to pitch their concept. Chambers and Matarazzo had previously worked with ACCA. For Chambers, she served as the AmeriCorps VISTA in the summer of 2020 with Matarazzo participating in ACCA’s lunch buddy program and most recently serving as an intern with the Grandparents Raising Grandchildren program. The team at ACCA loved the concept and introduced the Capstone idea to Melissa Cordell, Marketing Manager at the retirement facility Talmage Terrace & Lanier Gardens to include some of their residents.

With everyone on-board and excited to help area seniors tell their stories, the Living Histories of Athens project was created, and the students began conducting interviews by phone, through teleconferencing and if everyone was fully vaccinated, in person. Below are the stories these dynamic seniors shared:

Dr. Walter Allen, Sr.
Graduating at only 16 years old, he went on to achieve a doctorate from UGA, five master’s degrees and countless certificates all relating to music and education. Read more about Dr. Allen.

Roland Bramlett
A man of medicine and an author of science, Roland Bramlett remembers his time in the military, working in the specialized training unit, rehabilitating concentration camp survivors at Mauthausen Concentration camp, and his work in medicine during and after the war. As he approaches his 100th birthday in June, reflecting on both his hardships and accomplishments over the years, his message to future generations, “Do the best ya can… Why? Why do you want to do otherwise?” Read more about Roland Bramlett.

Dr. Gene Johnson
Dr. Johnson is an animated, compassionate, and courageous entertainer with a zealous love of music and its powerful abilities. More than anything, he values peace, freedom, and equality saying, “We’re all human beings.” Read more about Dr. Johnson.

Mary McKinney
Mary McKinney is a former teacher and historian of the Grand Teton Lodge Company who used COVID-19 as an opportunity to complete a task from her teaching days – getting letters her former students had written to their adult selves delivered. “Each one was like Christmas.” Read more about Mary McKinney.

Rosemary Woodel
Rosemary Woodel is a life-long learner who has gone from working at Temple University and the University of Miami to the University of Georgia, where she has become an integral part of OLLI. She elevated her artistic skills with technology during the COVID-19 pandemic and has made songs, movies, and even has a YouTube channel. Read more about Rosemary Woodel.

The Living Histories of Athens project provides a virtual scrapbook of individual legacies and showcases the ripple effect that one can leave on others and their community.

Paige Chambers, Bridget Hale and Richelle Matarazzo presented
their Capstone project via Zoom.

Reflecting on their experience of interviewing these older adults, Chambers, Hale and Matarazzo felt an array of emotions. Chambers, who interviewed Rosemary Woodel and Mary McKinney, said, “I had an interesting takeaway, especially given my proximity to graduation: it is crucial to be a lifelong learner. I often think of graduation in terms of relief, as the end of my education and the beginning of my career. But to live well and age well, I need to always learn new things and learn how to bounce back from setbacks.” Chambers and McKinney shared a special bond and have kept in touch since their initial interview.

Hale said she was surprised by the genuine emotion Dr. Johnson shared with her during their interview. “He did not hold back and gave me honest, touching answers. His answers made me think about how I want to live my life, which was incredibly emotional for me,” she said. “The day I interviewed him was the day my grandfather died. So, while I was already emotional, he shared his thoughts about life and death with me, which inspired me greatly. It provided me with a sense of peace and allowed me to accept my grandfather was in a better place and that he would have been proud of the life he lived, because I sure am.”

Matarazzo was also grateful for the opportunity and was surprised how willing each person was to share information with her. “I’m so grateful they trusted me with their stories. I left each interview so enlightened and grateful for the experience,” she said.

The Living Histories of Athens project provides a virtual scrapbook of their individual legacies and showcases the ripple effect that one can leave on others and their community. For Chambers, Hale and Matarazzo, they would love to see this project continue – as part of their own legacy.

“I would like to see it become a living testament to the value of Athenian seniors and go on to include not just videos, photos, and written stories but events and artifacts and a source of greater community interaction and pride,” Chambers said.

“Storytelling and the power of narrative are such great tools of empowerment, and I believe there should be more space for older adults to keep their memories alive through projects like this,” Matarazzo echoed.

We would like to extend a thank you to our partners at Talmage Terrace & Lanier Gardens for their assistance with the 2021 capstone project.

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