Volunteers help write 'Book of Life' at Vincentian care facilities

| Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013, 9:02 p.m.

Residents at Vincentian care facilities now can write their own life stories.

Through the “Book of Life” project, residents and volunteers can meet, one to reminisce, the other to listen. The stories will become a remembrance of their lives.

Volunteers gathered at Vincentian's four facilities on Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service to talk. This was the kickoff of the project at the Vincentian Home and Vincentian Regency in the North Hills and Marian Manor in Green Tree and Vincentian de Marillac in Stanton Heights.

Bill Fichter, a resident at Vincentian Home in Ross Township, was prepared to carry on his tale that day.

“We weren't wealthy, and we grew up in the Depression,” said Fichter, 88, of Troy Hill. “We had good parents and good schooling. I enjoyed my past life.”

He was a member of the Most Holy Name of Jesus Parish and worked as an accountant. Fichter said he is proud of his volunteer work with the mentally challenged.

“We taught them social etiquette, prepared them for their religious celebrations and how to be within the community,” he said.

As he helped them, he was brought out of his own awkwardness in social situations. He outgrew his shyness and now wants to include everyone in conversation and activities at the Vincentian Home. What he learned, he used to benefit others.

Fichter, who once was a temporary mailman, walked to homes twice a day to deliver mail with a 3-cent postage stamp. He learned to write with pen and ink in the fourth grade. He recalled nights of singing around the piano and enjoying cake and coffee with neighbors. He told about making $16 a week as an accountant at Horne's Department Store. Twelve streetcar tokens cost $1 — enough for a week of trips in and out of the city.

Answers to questions about the times, lifestyles and traditions one day will be found on pages of Fichter's own “Book of Life.”

“I was proud of what I did,” he said.“I didn't accomplish too much, but I did my best.”

As vice president of human resources for Vincentian Collaborative System, Tom McNeil wanted to add more to the programs for volunteer visitors, said Joyce Lewis-Andrews, director of volunteer services.

“He wanted something that was mutually rewarding for the residents and the volunteers,” she said, “something that would encourage people to come into the nursing home — even for a single day of service.”

The activity boosted residents' self-esteem, Lewis-Andrews said. The project also was rewarding for volunteers.

“It creates an understanding in the volunteers' perspective,” she said. “Historical events are put into perspective. They're hearing it as it was lived.”

Volunteer Maribeth Cuccinelli, 67, of Gibsonia, has been working with a 97-year-old woman.

“She's absolutely a dear and a lot of fun to get to know.”

From what Cuccinelli learned, Mary's life wasn't easy, even before her birth. She was a child of an arranged marriage — her mother came from Italy to meet the man who would be her husband, and there were many siblings. When it was difficult to afford Mary's private high school education on a coal miner's salary, she did without.

But she left that life behind by putting herself through high school and college to became a nurse. Mary traveled after her career and retired as a physical therapist. Never married, she keeps close to nieces and nephews, great-nieces and nephews and great-great nieces and nephews.

“But you are who you are because of what went before you,” Cuccinelli said.

What's lacking today, she said, is connections from generations past.

The “Book of Life” visits permit sharing between the old and the young.

As Lewis-Andrews described, one woman brought her two sons to a session. One boy was too young to write down anything.

Instead, he drew a picture about what he heard. That drawing was added to the resident's “Book of Life.”

“For a little book of all of 10 pages,” Cuccinelli said. “I have a wonderful new friend I wouldn't have otherwise.”

To become a volunteer for the “Book of Life” program, call Joyce Lewis-Andrews at 412-548-4060.

Dona S. Dreeland is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at ddreeland@tribweb.com or 724-772-6353.

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