Local | Volunteer Salute

Collecting people’s stories fosters compassion, empathy

Penelope Starr
Penelope Starr

Odyssey Storytelling, a monthly array of six Tucsonans each telling a true life story, began 10 years ago. “It’s all about the stories, the unique ways people figure out how to do life,” says founder and artist Penelope Starr. “It’s fascinating and so complicated.”

Complexity has never stopped Starr from jumping into worthy projects. “I’ve worked in a nursing home, with what we called battered women in the 1970s and assisted women with eating disorders,” says Starr.  She has also volunteered as a docent at the Tucson Museum of Art.

Her latest volunteer endeavor is to be a “citizen folklorist” with the new Southwest Folklife Alliance, a spinoff of Tucson Meet Yourself. She recently participated in training “to map and document people in the LGBT community on end-of-life issues,” which, Starr notes, is part of the “Continuum: End of Life Cultural Project” grant from the Shaaron Kent Endowment Fund held at the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona.

“A lot of people in the LGBT community don’t have the same built-in support as straight people,” she told the AJP. “They may have been estranged by their parents, their children or other family members. If so, they had to create a family by choice. That kind of family isn’t always recognized. There are legal and financial issues. And for some LGBT elders, they may even go back in the closet because of their living situations.”

Her impetus in being a docent, a storyteller and an activist is about helping to create “compassion, empathy and understanding in others, especially,” says Starr, “in the LGBT community. Being a docent is part being an educator, helping people see what’s behind the artwork.”

Starr grew up on Long Island, N.Y., where both of her parents were artists. Her mother was Jewish. Her lifelong interests “are somehow tied into the Jewish respect for learning. I was raised to question why things are the way they are and to actively seek answers. Our family dinners were always vibrant debates because all opinions were honored,” she says, “even if we didn’t agree. By collecting stories I learn more about other people’s experiences and different interpretations of the world.”