A Golden Ribbon Through 4 Decades of a Community’s Life
November 15, 2019 | by Larry Harris
This LeadingAge member reflects on the value of a long-established newsletter that chronicles the resident stories, values, and aspirations of a retirement community.
For 41 years now, Reflections has been the quarterly chronicle of all things Willow Brook. We launched the newsletter in 1978, 3 years into my tenure as leader at Willow Brook Christian Communities, Delaware, OH. Its predecessor had been a mimeographed bulletin (Google it, young people) that was better than nothing, I suppose. For the past 4 decades, though, every 3 months we have mailed Reflections out to thousands of friends, and now make it available online to who knows how many more.
Call me old-school, but I am partial to the paper version, as opposed to the e-variant most organizations are going with lately. My personal experience with e-newsletters, even those from associations I care about, is that I will scroll through, catch a few headlines, maybe skim an article, then hit delete. Poof. Gone.
Our paper version, if it’s not immediately banished to the round file, may take on a life of days or weeks or even years. Someone who pulls it from the mailbox may scope a picture or 2, browse a story, then lay it on the kitchen counter and put the groceries away. A spouse will come in and maybe read an article, then set it back down. A couple of days later, the first one will pick it up again and read a poem or maybe finish the article she scanned. In this way it is passed back and forth, maybe for weeks.
Through the years, Reflections has faithfully circulated news of this Christian ministry. In the early days, it was by all accounts a bona fide newsletter, replete with conventional stories about expansions and health department survey results. Its pages held reports of our 13 construction projects (or is it 15? I lose track), including the one where we pulled the roof off a single-story assisted living wing, added 2 levels above, and replaced the roof above that. Through sunny days and driving storms, we persevered with this crazy project. Crazy, yes, but we got ‘er done, and Reflections has the photos to prove it.
Nineteen years ago we converted Reflections from a newsletter to a journal. We began featuring resident- and staff-created poems and stories and photos. In our most recent issue you can read a poem from our ribbon-winning “poet laureate” resident, John Brinkerhoff, and a reflection on grief from another resident. These revelations of the heart share equal billing with the news of the day.
Since the first issue, I have contributed an essay, usually to be found on the inside front cover. The most recent is my 165th. From the get-go, I vowed to shun the time-worn format of the typical CEO’s message: Things are going really well here at Willow Brook; we’re moving into fall and residents are doing lots of fun things; come and see us; oh, and please send a donation.
My writings are poetic meditations on the soul of Willow Brook. One explained why I commissioned the planting of thousands of trees on our campuses. In another I told you about a resident with a pet chicken. In another I confessed my broken heart at the death of our founder and my mentor, Frank Chappell. Likewise, for a couple of civil rights icons it had been our privilege to serve in their last days. I have never shied away from writing about death. After all, we are running retirement communities and nursing homes, where funerals are an all-too-frequent fact of life.
In keeping with our aspiration for Reflections as a journal, half my essays have nothing to do with Willow Brook. I wrote about a little mouse that wintered with my wife and me one year—had the run of the house—and a spider named Charlotte—whose web became her lead Christmas gift for me—and my sorrow at leaving Burlington, VT (a “second hometown” we adopted as our own 20 years ago), a year after our 13th summer visit. My pieces have been known to reflect on the brevity of life, mean people, the heartbreak of Alzheimer’s, a manger and a cross, the mindless pursuit of lucre, the mystery of love, and the pride of fatherhood.
Hands-down, the most difficult for me was when I wrote about a car wreck I caused in 1970 that resulted in the other driver’s miscarriage. A 49-year-old woman is not walking the planet today because of my youthful carelessness.
Reflections is a golden ribbon that threads Willow Brook’s beautiful story, and ties together all the joys, the celebrations, and the heartbreaks of 41 years. It is not your typical newsletter. Many of our readers have told me so. And it has been my high privilege to have collaborated with 4 editors on every page—all 1,312 of them.
Tips for Creating a Newsletter With Punch
Let photos drive the copy. Keep your antennae up for those rare magical photos. When you come across that perfect photograph, where facial expressions are natural and sincere, where lighting, setting, and context seize your eye, write a caption or article to support it. Photos can spell the difference between a good newsletter and a great one.
Use resident- and staff-created pieces. We have an abundance of talent among us. Sometimes, I would say amazing talent. Watch for and encourage the submission of photos, poetry, artwork, and stories from your people.
Remember diversity. Make sure your photos and stories reflect a diversity of ethnicity, skin color, and faith backgrounds. And keep in mind line staff—those on your team “who break a sweat” in their jobs. There is a tendency to focus on the leaders. Whenever possible, give a shout-out to those working the floors, laundries, and kitchens.
Don’t be afraid to let your heart show. Every newsletter has a CEO greeting. I have turned my greeting into an essay in which I sometimes reveal my emotions and vulnerabilities. Readers love the honesty.
Larry Harris is CEO of Willow Brook Christian Communities.