There’s something special that happens when you put pen to paper and let your imagination flow.
That spellbinding feeling is what Angela Burton ’89 set out to capture when she began Feet to the Fire Writers’ Workshops. Six years later, her creative endeavor has found an even more noble purpose: providing lifelong learning and health benefits to aging populations by fueling connections through writing.
Feet to the Fire has helped more than 850 writers share more than 5,000 stories since its inception, and Burton has turned her homegrown workshops into a thriving business. With roughly 10,000 people turning 65 daily, Feet to the Fire has room to grow and to continue preserving the legacies of elders.
“There’s this whole idea that older people become invisible,” Burton said. “All I could think of was I don’t want their voices to go away.”
Starting with a spark
Feet to the Fire began with a flicker of an idea. Burton, who earned a bachelor’s degree in English at UofL, had always been a writer, eventually earning a master of fine arts in creative writing. By 2014, she had gone through a series of jobs but was searching for something more fulfilling.
“I was at that point where I just wanted to do something that was selfishly in my own zone and I wanted my tribe around me,” she said. “And my tribe were people who really enjoyed writing.”
Burton began searching around Louisville for creative writing groups but all she could find were classroom experiences. She imagined something much cozier: a group of writers sitting in her living room, in her “cool, little cottage” of a house with a fire crackling behind them, letting their stories pour out onto their pages. She wanted a connected experience through which people could share and feel safe and be heard, and they could find a sense of accountability to hone their craft.
“And then with the notion of gathering around fire to read the stories, it became Feet to the Fire Writers’ Workshops right off the bat,” she said.
So on one October day in 2014, a small group of people of all ages showed up to Burton’s front door with notebooks in hand.
“The first meeting it was all strangers and it was like magic,” Burton said. “It felt like this was the absolute right thing to do.”
The only thing that didn’t fit with her initial vision? The weather. It was an unseasonably warm October day, so the crackling fire would have to wait.
“Instead we opened up all the windows,” she said. “Nobody ever noticed or said, ‘You didn’t light a fire,’ but in so many metaphoric ways, I did light the fire that night.”
Fanning the fire
Louisville resident Mindy Hedley was one of the early Feet to the Fire participants. Like Burton, Hedley felt something indescribable in her first sessions.
“Community forms so quickly in these groups. I’m telling you, the only way to describe it is it’s some kind of magic,” Hedley, 59, said. “I think it has something to do with the writing; we’re sharing these intimate stories.”
Hedley had always journaled, but her writing took on more meaning as she turned to the craft to help her cope after her father’s death.
“When he passed, I thought he has to live on in some way, and writing is the way I could preserve his story,” Hedley said. “Feet to the Fire was something to guide me past the journaling, and I liked the small-group aspect of it.”
Preserving family legacies is often an outcome of the Feet to the Fire workshops. Since there is no expectation to publish any of the writing done in the group, many participants turn to their personal history for inspiration, illuminating the stories of their kin for future generations.
At one of the early living room sessions, Burton’s mother participated. Until then, Burton and her father had been the writers in the family; her father wrote dozens of stories, essays and poems before he passed away, finding a saving grace in writing down his thoughts as he got older. At Feet to the Fire, Burton’s mother began writing tales about their family that Burton had never heard before. And it was her mother who gave Burton her next big idea.
“My mom said,‘You should do this with people like me. You know, people that are old,’ ” Burton said.
Like any good daughter, Burton listened to her mother. She took her workshops to a local retirement community where she held sessions each week and piloted the program that would eventually become her business. The oldest gentleman in that first group was 97.
As Feet to the Fire began getting more attention, she got requests to expand the program into other communities. She quickly realized she would need to figure out how to scale her product.
She got a little help from a startup competition. In 2018, Burton was one of 10 finalists to compete for investment capital from Wild Accelerator’s female founders competition. Once again, her family became her inspiration.
“I remember walking into the room and there were 20 to 30 people all under 35 and I thought ‘How am I going to get them to relate?’ ” Her planned pitch sailed out of her head but she instantly changed paths as she looked at the picture of her father, whose Ernest Hemingway-esque portrait looked down on her from the backdrop for her presentation.
“I asked them ‘How many of you have grandparents? How many of you want to know their stories?’ and hands shot up,” she said.
With the seed money, Feet to the Fire expanded its focus to its current incarnation – a licensed program designed for use in senior/assisted living communities and wellness organizations. The communities receive writing kits for participants and training for facilitators.
In November 2020, Burton was named one of 20 “Influencers in Aging” by “Next Avenue,” a digital magazine for the senior population.
Stoking an eternal flame
While Feet to the Fire is now a bona fide business with facilitators in seven states, at its core the program is still about creating bonds. That connection is especially vital among aging populations.
“At its heart, Feet to the Fire is fulfilling a very social need that we have as human beings,” Burton said. “People want to connect with each other and they want to do it through their stories.”
While the program provides valuable prompts to kickstart the narrative process, it doesn’t matter what the participants write — fiction, nonfiction, stories of loss and love, tales of triumph or tragedy — it only matters that they write it down by hand and that they do it themselves.
“I want them to get into the therapeutic nature of writing and journaling. It challenges people to have to figure out what to do with words or phrases and make a story out of it,” Burton said.
Feet to the Fire also provides physical health benefits to the aging population. The act of writing is cognitive exercise and it gives participants a drive, desire and a reason to get up in the morning, Burton said. Having a purpose has been proven to add longevity to life, according to a 2019 study by University of Michigan epidemiologist Celeste Leigh Pearce. Burton is working with Pearce on a research proposal to examine Feet to the Fire as a scientifically valid intervention to develop that sense of purpose. She is also in talks with Swansea University in Wales to do international research.
For Louisville resident Judith Conn, the workshops have helped her process her grief over the death of her husband, provided her a way to stay active and connect with peers in her retirement community and allowed her to leave a legacy for her three children.
“It has helped me remember,” said Conn, 80. “The writing has really been beneficial, and I reach way back into my childhood because these are the memories I need to pass on to my family.”
Conn has written about everything from the perils of sleeping on a feather bed at her aunt’s farm to the joys of driving across the country on a work trip. One of her stories, about giving up her beloved red Mazda Miata when she started having trouble using the stick shift as she aged, was published in “Next Avenue.”
“It was about my realization that I was losing my independence,” she said. “I knew I was going to make a lot of changes and that was one of the hardest to make.”
As the aging population expands, Burton added a consumer version of Feet to the Fire so people can participate from home. The COVID-19 pandemic brought a sense of urgency to that goal.
“The older population may be sequestered for a while, so my concern is reaching people because I know they’re going to get lonely,” she said.
Feet to the Fire changed drastically with COVID-19, switching to Zoom sessions instead of in-person visits. Conn, who attends Feet to the Fire workshops at the Episcopal Church Home, enjoys the Zoom sessions but greatly misses the camaraderie of being in the same room with her fellow writers.
“Sitting across the table from people, sharing the laughter and sadness with their stories, you just can’t get that on Zoom,” she said.
In addition to adapting the sessions, Burton also launched the latest effort in the Feet to the Fire family, the OUTLOUD podcast. The podcast interviews Feet to the Fire participants and tells some of the stories they’ve written. It’s another effort to make sure their memories are saved.
For Burton and Feet to the Fire participants, getting those stories out is the whole point — people, especially seniors, need to be heard and writing is the way to do it.
“They never run out of stories. It’s like they write stories to the end of their days,” Burton said. “So if that tells you anything, it tells you about the power of writing.”