Stories from Americans: Rebuilding a community [audio]

This is third in a four-part series of recordings by Americans. The other stories are from descendants of Santa’s helper, father-son taxi drivers and a chaplain with an unusual assignment.

Stories aren’t just meant to be shared around a campfire or while tucking children into bed. They often help define a time and place or illustrate a universal truth.

That’s why the U.S. Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center preserves sad stories, funny stories and even heart-wrenchingly serious stories. The collection of oral histories boasts stories from 650,000 participants and counting — the largest single collection of human voices in the world.

The project is the brainchild of radio producer Dave Isay, who in 2003 named it StoryCorps. (StoryCorps is an independent nonprofit organization funded by donations.)

At first, the stories were told by pairs of people interviewing each other in a recording booth in New York’s Grand Central Terminal. Today, the project has added sound booths in Atlanta and Chicago as well as mobile recordings. When the pandemic hit, StoryCorps added a platform for people to do interviews on their phones and computers, helping Americans tell stories during a time of social distancing.

“When we listen to the stories of other people, we can understand more about our shared humanity,” said Colleen Ross, managing director of StoryCorps. “Listening is an act of love and … increasingly, it is an act that is essential to building compassion and empathy for others.”

ShareAmerica is highlighting some of our favorite stories, including this one, about one man’s determination to help his community recover from a hurricane.

Saving a Community, One Can of Food at a Time

Burnell Cotlon spent three years living in a trailer after Hurricane Katrina washed away much of his poverty-stricken New Orleans neighborhood in 2005.

While others left the Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood and never came back, Cotlon saw a need he could fill: He built a neighborhood market amid the wreckage.

Burnell’s Lower 9th Ward Market found a second calling when the coronavirus hit in 2020, helping newly devastated customers facing illness and job losses. The market offered free food at times and credit for hurting customers at others. “I have spent my entire life savings doing this,” Cotlon told Good Morning America. But, he said, “I sleep very good at night. I have no regrets.”

In StoryCorps’ interview Cotlon’s mother, Lillie, talks about her initial skepticism but also about her admiration of her son, who sees possibility where others don’t.