Area students record life stories of Bangor’s homeless

Posted Aug. 03, 2009, at 8:39 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 12 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Kate Wypyski had met homeless people before. The 16-year-old Brewer High School student served meals over the past couple of years at the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter with her fellow Key Club members.

Until Friday, however, she had never sat down and listened to a homeless person’s story.

“She told me a lot about her life,” Wypyski said after her first interview with a 55-year-old woman who uses the services at the shelter. “She still has a connection to her family in Massachusetts. That kind of surprised me.”

Wypyski was one of eight area teenagers who recorded the stories of 15 homeless men and women. The 30-minute interviews were recorded over the past four days at the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter at the corner of Main and Cedar streets.

Students will discuss the project, “Listen to This: Recording Stories of Bangor’s Homeless,” and play excerpts from the interviews at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the Bangor Public Library. Edited versions will be broadcast on the Voices segment of WERU-FM at 102.9 FM in Bangor and 89.9 FM in Blue Hill. The complete inter-views will be archived at the library.

The project is the brainchild of Alexandra “Alex” Kelly, 25, of Bangor. Kelly spent most of last year traveling around the country for StoryCorps, an independent nonprofit project whose mission is to honor and celebrate people’s lives through listening. Most often, a younger family member interviews an older one. Each conversation is recorded on a CD given to the participants, and is archived at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

That experience, along with a conversation Kelly had last year with a stranger on an airplane about the homeless, spurred the Bangor native to create the project. She contacted the homeless shelter in Bangor, area high schools and the community radio station where she got her start a decade ago when she created a radio show for children.

Her experience with StoryCorps, Kelly said, taught her the power of both telling and listening to someone’s life story. She decided that by connecting high school students with the homeless and through them via the library with the larger community, people’s preconceived notions about the homeless might change.

Making that “horizontal” connection with the community and its young people is the reason Dennis Marble, director of the shelter, agreed to open the facility up to Kelly and her charges, Marble said Friday.

“We are increasingly trying to figure out how we can have a better impact on the greater community as well as help the homeless. Given the dollars we have, we always are asking: ‘How can we raise awareness?’”

In the past, Marble said, he and officials at shelters around the country have been reluctant to let high school students meet with shelter residents and make a public record due to privacy issues. That attitude is changing, he added, citing the shelter’s clients’ need for validation, which could come through the project.

The shelter has 33 beds and often turns people away, he said. Those who are accepted must be sober, not using drugs and actively seeking employment and housing. The population base at the shelter has risen slowly and steadily over the past few years but has not spiked in the past year due to the faltering economy.

Marble is especially excited about how the students’ experiences will ripple out into their high school communities when they return to school this fall. He predicted it could be a life-changing experience for them.

“I was 14 when a Jesuit priest took me to volunteer at a place like this,” he said. “It didn’t kick in until about 10 years ago when I began this work, but I know it had an impact.”

Kelly said Monday that the students’ interactions with the shelter residents went about as she had expected. They will be editing the stories over the next two days.

“What has surpassed my expectations was that the stereotypes they had have all been erased,” she said of her fellow students. “Most people did two or three interviews, and by the second or third they were interacting on a much more natural, conversational level. The fear factor was down.”

She said the stories students have heard over the past four days cover “the full spectrum.” One she’s most interested in seeing and hearing people’s reactions to is the interview between Ryan Lad, 18, of Glenburn and a young man who is about the same age. Lad graduated in June from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor.

“They have very different life stories,” Kelly said, “but they found things in common they could connect to — television shows, video games, going to the lake.”

The reasons people have given for being homeless have run the gamut — from alcohol and drug abuse to making poor choices in life to being unable to continue living with family to financial difficulties, Kelly said. Some are native Mainers who have spent their entire lives in the state. Others recently arrived in Bangor from homeless shelters in other states.

One woman interviewed works full time at a retail store but does not make enough money to make her car payment, pay insurance and pay rent without a roommate. An Iraq war veteran who is a native of Kansas said that he has wanted to be in Maine since he was 8 years old.

Will Witham, 17, a student at Bangor High School, decided to do the project because he wanted to establish “some sort of rapport” with members of the local homeless population and learn more about their situations.

“People have such a terrible stigma associated with the homeless, and it’s based almost entirely on pure ignorance and irrational fear.” he said in an e-mail when asked why he got involved in the project. “I mentioned this project to an acquaintance some months ago, and she immediately began inquiring as to whether I would be ‘safe’ or not — completely ridiculous.

“I’m not doing this out of charity,” he said, “or because it will look good on my college application or because I’m such a ‘nice person.’ I’m doing it because they’re my fellow human beings, and our society unjustly punishes them, and I think they deserve to be listened to.”

Witham said Monday that the stories he heard did not disappoint him.

“It just blows my mind, all the different stories we heard,” he said. “It’s really humbling.”

Other students working on the project are Haley Burns, 16, Winterport, a student at Hampden Academy; Colleen Gilley, 16, Dedham, a student at Brewer High School; Deanna Kizer, 16, Holden, a student at John Bapst; Whitney Klamm, 17, Holden, a student at Brewer High School; and Tiffany Rideout, 16, Winterport, a student at Hampden Academy.