By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
EDWARDSVILLE — Everybody has a story to tell, Mike Stith says, and his own story proves it.
His mother was dying of cancer a few years ago, and he had the sad responsibility to sit by her care-center bedside on many occasions. As they talked, sometimes for hours, he would notice her demeanor brighten, just by recounting details of her life.
“We went from one question to the next and I couldn’t help notice her spirits were lifted,” he said. “People who were walking by saw it — even the aides noticed. Strangers I didn’t know, we all would sit around and pose these questions, almost like a game.”
It struck Stith that many others might benefit from telling their stories — or by hearing such tales. The passing of his mother gave birth to an idea. A new trademarked business, OneLegacy.com, is his attempt to bring lasting memory to everyone’s personal story.
“A lot of families spend a lot of time sitting, but there’s not a lot of dialog. I kind of stumbled on this when I started asking my mom questions. It was, ‘How did you meet Dad?’ ‘What was your childhood like?’ It’s things we should know, but we don’t always ask.”
Stith was in customer service/call center management for almost 30 years and at one point oversaw the operations of call centers in five countries. Along the way he met a lot of people who shared stories of their own families. It was good training for what was to come.
Today, five years after his mother’s death, the Edwardsville man is busy establishing his business in St. Louis and in Southwestern Illinois. He’s finding response everywhere he goes.
“Our target, really, is the generation of people that want to take the time and reminisce and start documenting those special events of their life that they want to share with future generations. And our business target is the businesses that benefit and provide value by doing the exact same thing.”
Essentially, he is a story publisher, offering a trademarked service called Legacy Sharing, a licensed program stressing brain-stimulating activities. Senior care facilities are a prime beneficiary, since they are constantly looking for ways to engage and keep residents active.
Some residents won’t come out of their rooms to participate in routine senior activities, he said, but they will come out for legacy sharing.
The service has evolved to take on multiple facets as Stith discovered the interest levels.
“We made some informed assumptions, but we learn more everywhere we go. The business I set up really covers greater-good programs,” he said.
A team from One Legacy facilitates the presentation of structured activities specially designed to identify, record and collect real-life stories.
The program format and timeline are customized to suit the needs of each group, but each client has access to memory-sharing games, storytelling and story-writing activities and digital, eBook and hardbound story book keepsakes. For those people who are unable to write down their stories, for physical or other reasons, volunteers are available to help.
Many of the details of OneLegacy.com have been developed in nursing homes with which Stith has been working for the past year, mainly on the Missouri side. He is actively getting a foothold in Metro East.
“We’ll start with groups that are looking for activities for their residents. We’ll look for volunteers and part-time and offer training. We can train the staff so they can take over the program themselves. But the best possible solution is for us to come in. Activities directors are so busy they don’t have time to develop a program on their own,” he said.
“We’ll provide a license for a year. We’ll provide the activities and our intellectual materials. We’ll literally host the activities each week for you. They have the rights to our program for a year and we’ll come in as often as they’d like us to.”
Stith’s wife, Sonja, is a partner in the business and he has a team of people doing marketing and facilitating.
“We have a team of people in St Louis focused on developing additional brain stimulating activities and continually enhancing our programs. Managing director is Cynthia Correll, who is located in St. Louis and a member of the One Legacy business team, “ he said.
He is certain the program will spread.
“I have a global vision. It’s a community based program that can be connected to communities throughout the world. We’d be honored to spread that inspiration from the St. Louis area,” he said.
Storytelling and legacy publishing is, of course, not new, but Stith say he offers a personal touch.
“What we wanted was to get on the streets, see people eye to eye and bring the concept of telling your story to the family level. We dive a little bit deeper. We’re not just a family tree operation and we don’t want to just hear people’s life stories. We want specific pieces of their life that inspired them. You share one story with us and we’re going to create a legacy and share it with other people.”
As part of getting to know people, One Legacy has developed an icebreaker game, a “story starter” card deck with 52 cards, which can be used to coincide with 52 weeks a year.
“You can literally do this program by answering a new question every week,” Stith said.
Favorite pets, favorite vacations and spouse memories are among the popular questions.
“We go around the room with eight to 10 people in these sessions. We’ll ask eight to 10 questions, just to get the thought process going. We are somewhat overwhelmed at how successful this is — it became our program,” he said. “I’ve never seen such attentive audiences.”
Recently One Legacy began customizing decks of cards for groups other than seniors, for example Boy Scouts and veterans. Adoption and foster parent agencies are also possibilities.
Just as every community has a senior center, most of them have youth organizations as well. Both can use ice breakers as a means of creating interest.
The company charges a flat fee for licensing the program for a year.
“It works out to be about $40 a week,” Stith said. “Just about all groups can afford to do that, and the ones that can’t we’re going to be looking for sponsors to help sponsor the program.”
The company sells the story-starter deck of cards, books, three-ring binders for families, and training services for organizations.
“That’s how we sustain our business. Our licensing cost basically covers our cost,” he said.
Stith’s wife Sonja has an extension business background as well and is active in the business’ management, while her husband serves largely as the face of the company.
Stith was asked which story has fascinated him the most during the few years he has pursued One Legacy. He thought a long moment before answering, and perhaps his response is no surprise.
“My mother’s,” he said. “She was adopted when she was young, four years old. She grew up in a children’s service facility and died in a senior facility, institutionalized at the beginning and end of her life. I think she had five years of education in her lifetime, yet she raised four kids. When it came time for her to go into hospice, she asked me if it was OK. It was a heck of a decision, but it was one of the most straightforward I ever made, because of that year I spent with her and health-care staff.”
As a social enterprise business, One Legacy plans on sponsoring various community events. One will be the Illinois Pioneer Coalition 2015 Summit in Springfield on Oct 29.
It will also be a sponsor of the 33rd Annual Hospice Conference of Southwestern Illinois “Innovations and Inspirations” on Thursday, Nov. 12.
Stith said the company has several new Legacy Sharing projects starting in the region. He is looking for qualified, caring individuals who are interested in working as part-time coordinators for the Legacy Sharing program.