Voices Remembered

November 1, 2015, Department, by Sandra J. Gonzalez, FASLA, CPRP, Eyvette Ruiz

Pico Rivera Park and Recreation’s Veterans History Project brings teens and seniors together and helps to preserve important oral histories.Eleven miles southeast of Los Angeles lies a city of 63,000 people. While not considered large by California standards, the City of Pico Rivera is known throughout the Los Angeles and San Gabriel region, chiefly because of its active veterans’ programming.

Pico Rivera boasts four veteran’s posts, including two Veterans of Foreign War and two American Foreign Legion posts. Hosting blood drives, music events and receptions, these Pico Rivera organizations serve veterans and their families with positive communication and support. 

There are many generations of families who reside in Pico Rivera, and among those families many served in U.S. war efforts. The city’s Department of Parks and Recreation wanted to find a way to collect the stories of the local veterans and preserve them for future generations, while simultaneously facilitating positive interactions between Pico Rivera’s teens and its senior population. 

Making Intergenerational Connections 

In researching how best to achieve these goals, the department learned of the Veterans History Project, a national volunteer effort spearheaded by the Library of Congress that is focused on preserving veterans’ war stories. The United States Congress created the program as part of the American Folklife Center — its authorizing legislation received unanimous support and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in October 2000. The success of the program relies on a national network of organizations and individuals to record the interviews and submit them to the permanent collection of the Library of Congress. The mission of the Veterans History Project is to collect, preserve and make accessible the personal accounts of American war veterans so that future generations may hear those voices directly and better understand the realities of war. In addition, those U.S. citizen civilians who were actively involved in supporting war efforts (such as war industry workers, USO workers, flight instructors, medical volunteers, etc.) are also invited to share their valuable stories. More information, including guidelines on how to become involved in the project, can be found here.

The Pico Rivera Department of Parks and Recreation decided to work with its teen club to create a learning opportunity and intergenerational project for the city’s youth and seniors. The Veterans History Project seemed like a great way to highlight senior veterans and help share their stories, while simultaneously offering new and different programming opportunities for teen participants. The teens responded with excitement, while understanding that this project would require research and dedication in order to be successful. 

Getting Started

With a group of brave and willing teen interviewers on board, outreach began to search for local veteran participants. A number of different methods were used — the Pico Rivera Senior Center was an obvious first stop, as it is an active location for local seniors, with more than 200 patrons visiting daily. From there, department staff reached out to the commanders of each of the four veterans’ posts, as well as the Veterans Council and Ladies Auxiliary presidents. Standard outreach methods were also employed, such as creating fliers for posting at all city buildings and community centers. The city newsletter and quarterly recreation programming guides also featured articles or requests for veteran volunteers. Finally, all parks and recreation personnel and other city staff members were asked if they or other members of their families had served. In the end, a total of six veterans volunteered for the project, representing service from WWII, as well as the Korea and Vietnam wars. 

When staff members first contacted the senior center to ask resident veterans if they would be interested in sharing their stories — not only with the young volunteers but also for documentation in the Library of Congress — most were very happy and eager to tell their stories. Still, some veterans did not want to relive that time of their lives. That was when staff fully realized that some of these stories may be extremely sensitive to the veterans, and the teens would need to be well prepared.  

It should be noted that the Veterans History Project is not solely an intergenerational undertaking. In fact, most submissions will not be. But, participation of students and youth is encouraged, and it has been utilized across the country as an acceptable Eagle Scout project. That said, youth interviews require significantly more guidance and supervision. When engaging students for this project, it is required that only those in 10th grade or higher be involved, because of the possibly serious nature of veterans’ accounts and stories. Parks and recreation staff found this to be an appropriate stipulation in the actual interviews, as some descriptions of combat did contain graphic detail. 

To prepare the interviewers, teen leaders spent several weeks discussing the various wars, history and experiences in war that the veterans may have encountered. Each teen was paired with a veteran and required to research that veteran’s particular war. Staff members sat down with each teen and conducted mock interviews to help them understand the process and assist them in communicating effectively and efficiently. Staff provided plenty of guidance throughout the process to ensure it would be an educational experience. In all, the teen training took eight weeks of preparation. 

Collecting Stories

Each participating veteran was required to fill out a biographical data form, which is part of the submission package for the Library of Congress. This gave information about the veteran, including branch of service, dates of service, rank, duties and assignments, and wartime activity. In addition, a list of 15-20 questions was filled out by each veteran regarding their time spent in the military. Reviewing this form along with the veterans’ questionnaires in advance of the actual interviews helped the teens gain a better understanding of what they needed to research, as well as what to expect from their veteran.  

The written and oral interviews by the teens were conducted according to protocols provided by the Veteran’s History Project. After the interviews were completed and paperwork filled out and reviewed, the collection was sent to the Library of Congress to be added to its permanent collection in Washington D.C.  

Through their participation in this project, Pico Rivera teens had an opportunity to leave their own legacy, gain knowledge and education about history and wartime, and develop a deeper relationship with their senior neighbors. And the true local heroes — the veterans of Pico Rivera — are now also part of that legacy. 

 

Sandra Gonzales is the Director of the Pico Rivera Department of Parks and Recreation. Eyvette Ruiz is the Recreation Coordinator at the Pico Rivera Department of Parks and Recreation.