The University of Oklahoma’s Writing Center was one of many groups that stepped up after last year’s devastating storms to distribute water, clothing and other necessities to those who had lost everything. Now, more than a year later, the group has launched a new program to help survivors recover.
Sam Schasteen and her neighbor Terri Bryant rode out the May 20, 2013, tornado in Schasteen’s shelter in Moore. Neither really knew each other well prior to the storm, but their relationship grew quickly as they tried to rebuild their homes.
Earlier this summer, Bryant approached Schasteen with an opportunity to attend a digital storytelling workshop specifically for tornado survivors.
“In the beginning, I think it was just to help her and support her. But I have realized I didn’t know how much I needed it until I got here,” Schasteen said.
She’s one of four women who spent more than 15 hours in workshops at the Moore Public Library for a program called Survivors in Motion. Participants wrote memoirs, recorded voiceovers and created short films using pictures, video and audio to tell stories from the storms… a process that took Schasteen back.
“I thought that I was in a good place,” she said. “But going through everything again and hearing testimonies of the other participants in the workshop, I did realize there was some work that needed to be done, and it was very cathartic in writing it all out.”
The cathartic process can easily become emotional because participants are asked to edit their own pieces – which means listening to and watching parts of the tornado’s destruction over and over again – more than a year after it happened.
Brooke Hessler teaches writing and digital storytelling at Oklahoma City University and helped facilitate Survivors in Motion. She says that gap year was important.
“Waiting a year gives people mental space. It gives them time to live with what they’ve experienced and be in a safer place to work through their stories,” Hessler said.
Even though each participant was affected by the same tornado, every piece is totally different. For example, Schasteen’s piece looks at the sunflowers that overwhelmed the city last summer. Abby Cotton, another participant, remembered what it was like driving through her then-unrecognizable neighborhood.
“The one ingredient that's common to all the digital stories is an audio-recorded voiceover,” said Oklahoma City University’s Brooke Hessler. “There's something very grounding in hearing yourself speak your truth and that's not an opportunity many people have outside these kinds of workshops.”
Sam Schasteen says she felt her strength build over the course of the event.
“I feel like now I've come full circle because I've kind of uncovered every stone that needed to be uncovered in learning the valuable lessons that were meant to be learned.”
She thinks many people are probably in the same boat she was in before the workshop – thinking they’ve recovered when they’ve really just set the trauma aside. And as hard as it was for her to uncover those stones, she called the process an oasis, a place where it was safe to grieve the loss and celebrate new beginnings all at once.