Pen in Hand program at Village Active Lifestyle Community welcomes residents to tell their stories

Kevin Swansey, Lifestyle Coordinator for Village Active Lifestyle Community, poses with Jane Cecil, a regular attendee of Pen in Hand.

From belly dancing lessons to biplane flights, Kevin Swansey, Lifestyle Coordinator for Village Active Lifestyle Community, is known for his boundary-pushing programming. In his five years at Masonic Homes, Kevin has invited residents to gain new experiences, no matter how unfamiliar they may feel. However, one of his newer endeavors, Pen in Hand, asks participants to draw on their past experiences to get out of their comfort zones, this time to share something personal.

Each week Kevin presents an open-ended writing prompt of his own creation and asks participants to put pen to paper. He finds inspiration for his prompts everywhere: in daily life, in his work and in talking with friends, family and residents. The following week, writers are invited to read their pieces aloud to the group. Some write poems, some have stories, some create impressions and voices for the characters, some are known for their one-liners and some have a wonderful sense of humor.

Some participants made their careers in literature—one regular attendee was a journalist, and one is a published novelist— but all are welcome. “We invite everyone, even people who just want to come in and sit and listen as we read our stories from the week before,” said Kevin. “Most people here are not writers at all and just want to express themselves. You don’t have to have any talent, you just come and tell your story and put it on paper.” Residents get the opportunity to express themselves in words without critique or editing. The purpose is solely to foster creativity, create friendships and provide new ways of looking at the world. “It is not a class or a ‘how to’ session,” said Pen in Hand regular Jane Cecil, who was a librarian. “It’s definitely not English 101 or creative writing for professional training.”

Prompts vary from “What is your definition of success?” to “Describe your perfect picnic.” Other prompts are visual: Norman Rockwell’s distinct and relatable paintings are a favorite resource. “They say a picture is worth 1,000 words, but I get more than 1,000 out of some of those pictures,” said Kevin. “The whole purpose is to give them new experiences,” said Kevin. “This program lets them express their experiences and maybe even see some experiences from a different point of view.”

One such experience that writers were able to see from many different points of view came up the day that Kevin prompted the residents to write about a time when everything changed in the blink of an eye. “About half of the people in the room that day wrote about World War II. One prompt made four or five different people examine the same situation from very different perspectives” recalls Kevin. One writer grew up in Holland and shared her story about the Nazi occupation, while another wrote of the war on the homefront. “You never know what people go through until you hear about it,” Kevin said. “I appreciate their lives so much when I hear their stories.” 

The outcomes of the stories serve different purposes for each author. One writer likes to record nostalgic stories of the people in her hometown. Another uses these exercises to write pieces of a biography for family. The program has become so popular that residents come from all corners of Masonic Communities’ Louisville Campus. Even Kevin is inspired to contribute. “I participate sometimes and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done for myself,” said Kevin. “These are more than words on paper, but really cherished memories.” A recent prompt asks the group to write about things they collect. Kevin is looking forward to sharing his story of salt and pepper shakers, and time spent with his grandmother. The residents see the experience in the same light. “This group is not just legacy writing, but a fun activity that mixes fact and fiction with memories and opinions,” said Jane.