Alzheimer’s disease inspires launch of special project

Posted: May 16, 2012 in The Philadelphia Tribune
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Matthew Ross Smith experienced an up close and intimate view of Alzheimer’s disease during while spending time with his beloved grandfather, William B. McNamee. It was an emotional time for Smith.“We have a close family,” he said. “As my grandfather began to change, it was important for him to share his life experiences with me. We became close because of the illness. I vividly recall him telling me that every day the world was full of more strangers – I think he was afraid we would become strangers, and we did.

“It was important for him to pass on his stories to me so I could share them with others. We purposely took walks so my grandfather could talk and share his wisdom with me.”

If you knew your time was short, and you could share with the world one piece of advice, what would it be? That is the question Smith, an adjunct writing professor in Drexel University’s Goodwin College and College of Arts and Sciences, has asked more than 5,000 people across the country.

The endeavor, called the Spaces Between Your Fingers (SBYF) project, was inspired by Smith’s grandfather, a WWII veteran who struggled with Alzheimer’s disease. As the disease progressed, it became increasingly important for McNamee to make connections and share his experiences.

Smith decided to collect these memories and bits of wisdom from others as well, offering people a chance to reflect, create and connect.

In 2009, Smith traveled across the country, handing out over-sized, self-addressed, stamped postcards to whomever he encountered in parks, libraries and other public spaces along the way.

He instructed the strangers to trace their handprints onto the cards—a unique “handprint signature”—and to write a single piece of advice in the space between the outlines of their fingers.

“The unifying theme of the project is connection—connection of hands, connection of strangers, connection between generations,” Smith said. “If everyone contributes just one vivid handful of experience—what you’ve learned from being in love, or in combat, or a student, or a farmer—we’ll create a rich, meaningful mosaic of what it’s like to be human.”

The grassroots SBYF project has grown into a community art initiative with the mission of sharing wisdom between strangers and generations, and raising awareness of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.

Smith will host a Wisdom Workshop at Drexel University on June 1 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. in the Creese Student Center’s Behrakis Grand Hall at 32nd and Chestnut streets. The event is free and open to the public.

Smith hopes to attract as diverse a group as possible in age, gender, race, background and education to gather in small groups and respond to prompts and questions, tell stories and share experiences. Visit http://www.sbyfproject.com for more information.

On the project’s Website, visitors can watch an interactive video about the project, read the “Secret of the Spaces Between Your Fingers” digital storybook and submit their own words of wisdom. The site also includes materials to encourage teachers to run “Wisdom Workshops” in their classrooms.

Through this journey Smith has realized a new life passion of storytelling.

“Being able to facilitate and tell a story that encourages others to share is a pretty cool thing to have on a business card,” he said. “I am glad this project is becoming a huge part of my life.”

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