HOMER, N.Y. (WSYR-TV) — Everyone has a story of how they were impacted by COVID-19.

“Being able to hear those stories really helps us understand each other and build empathy and connect,” said Priscilla Berggren-Thomas, Director of Phillips Free Library.

The library has launched a project called “Stories Behind the Mask” to collect everyone’s stories and experiences of what it’s been like during the COVID pandemic.

Central New Yorkers can submit written stories, poems, photography, and artwork to be included in the library’s digital archive.

“We’re all experiencing the same thing and yet we’re all having unique experiences and being able to hear those stories really helps us understand each other and build empathy and connect.”

Berggren-Thomas got the idea after learning about a community in Indiana with a similar diary project. This, coupled with the books she read about the pandemic, led to the idea. She said that it is important to preserve these stories as a historical record and to also keep people connected with the similarities and differences that they have faced during the pandemic.

The library received a grant from the Libraries Transforming Communities Initiative of the American Library Association and the Association of Rural and Small Libraries with the goal of engaging community members in a project. 

Libraries had creative liberties in coming up with their project, and the Phillips Free Library did just that. Rather than doing a single seminar on a topic, the library created an ongoing community discussion about the pandemic consisting of four parts: A book discussion, a writer’s workshop, a story reading, and an online digital archive of stories. Once the archive is finished, it will be a searchable digital platform where people can also continue to submit their own stories.

“I think in these moments, we all hear the news and what’s going on in big cities, and with politicians and with companies,” she said. “But it’s like what’s going on in our own community and what are our stories as everyday people.”

The grant allows the library to pay people to go out and record stories for people who aren’t comfortable writing their own down. 

“Stories are so critical to being human. They’re how we learn. They’re how we remember. They’re how we develop empathy. They’re how we connect. And so to me, collecting these stories and keeping these stories is really part of our growing and compassion and empathy and caring for each other, and really building community, becoming a community that cares for each other. Now’s the tough time, but now is also the time of opportunity for us to really reach out and stories seem to be the way that we do that,” said Berggren-Thomas.

People of all ages are encouraged to submit their stories in a format of their choosing. The library has reached out to local schools in hopes of getting stories from the younger generations.

To submit a story, you can visit the library’s website.