November’s storytellers take a bow. They are, from left, Tom Dobrez, Errol McClendon, Megan Wells, Homewood Stories founder and curator Karen O’Donnell and Betsey Milord.
Feature, Local News

Homewood Stories turns 10: Celebrating a decade of community-building — one tale at a time

Karen O’Donnell greets the audience as they settle in for the November session of Homewood Stories at the Flossmoor Community House. (Karen Torme Olson photos/H-F Chronicle)
Karen O’Donnell greets the audience as they settle in for the November session of Homewood Stories at the Flossmoor Community House. (Karen Torme Olson photos/H-F Chronicle)

On Jan. 21, 2014, Homewood dentist Karen O’Donnell raised the curtain on a local storytelling tradition for an audience of 45 hardy souls who had to fight their way through a polar vortex just to hear strangers share pieces of their personal experiences from a stage at Grady’s Grill.

Ten years, six venues, and a pandemic later, Homewood Stories is still going strong.

In fact, every third Tuesday of the month, the hottest ticket in town is for a seat at a big round table in the Flossmoor Community House, where the pre-show atmosphere is reminiscent of a tailgate before a big game, only this one is indoors.

An hour before showtime, people greet neighbors and newcomers while they unpack their coolers, break bread, breach barriers and watch a live stage show.

It is exactly what O’Donnell envisioned when she decided to put together a production showcasing individuals speaking from the heart about their personal experiences.

“Oral communication and written communication are very different,” says O’Donnell. “We all have personal experiences that could be a story. The key is that all the stories told at Homewood Stories are true, not fairytales, not SciFi.”

O’Donnell jokes that her own love of storytelling was born of talking to a captive audience of patients — one at a time — while they underwent dental work in her office. “I get to tell stories in my day job as a dentist,” she quipped, adding that her running narratives often help reduce patient stress.

Ten years ago, O’Donnell decided it was time to use her storytelling talent to connect with a larger audience, and Homewood Stories was born. Today there are more than 40 storytelling shows/series in the Chicago area alone, some concentrate on stories related to specific ethnic communities or special interest groups, but Homewood Stories concentrates on personal experience stories from individuals no matter their background. It is the only show of that genre in the South Suburbs.

“Homewood Stories is different from shows in the city because we’re all about community,” O’Donnell says.

She opens each session by recapping the house rules and the general story format: There usually are five storytellers per session (four guests and O’Donnell). They don’t use notes or memorize their stories, which must be about real experiences and situations and no more than 10 minutes long, though no one gets the hook if they go over.

Dusty Patrick was one of the storytellers at the October session.

“I was our family storyteller for a while and then Karen dropped off flyers advertising Homewood Stories at my building. I came to the first in-person session after COVID,” said the 80-years-young Patrick, who told a vivid, often hilarious, always engaging, first-person account of a 12-hour trek with a friend through a raging snowstorm.

Patrick shared that she was motivated to leave the safety of her office building and take on the storm because she was determined to sleep in her own bed and not at her workplace that night.

To accomplish that, she had to walk 23 blocks through driving wind and snowdrifts while having to stop frequently to push her reluctant friend to keep going. It took more than 12 hours for her to get home, but she made it!

During her presentation, Patrick never mentioned the date of her experience, but it was instant deja vu for anyone in the room who had lived through the Chicago Blizzard of ’67.

At the November session, Patrick was strictly a member of the audience. She confided that she is expanding her new career in professional storytelling and soon will be sharing her memories as a member of the Chicago Association of Black Storytellers. “This [storytelling] is the best thing God ever led me to,” Patrick said.

Tom Dobrez, whose roots run deep in Flossmoor, reached back into his childhood for a story about family, sports, and a missed opportunity that has become one of his fondest memories.

Dobrez is a radio consultant for hundreds of small radio stations across the country, and he also is a founding member of Flossmoor’s Future, a non-profit volunteer group that initiated and promotes such events as the Flossmoor GEM half-marathon, Bike the GEM, and Plant the GEM.

November’s storytellers take a bow. They are, from left, Tom Dobrez, Errol McClendon, Megan Wells, Homewood Stories founder and curator Karen O’Donnell and Betsey Milord.
November’s storytellers take a bow. They are, from left, Tom Dobrez, Errol McClendon, Megan Wells, Homewood Stories founder and curator Karen O’Donnell and Betsey Milord.

But it is Dobrez’s love of sports and family that came through in his humorous, poignant story about being inadvertently left behind—and left out of—a large family outing to a Chicago White Sox game when he was a kid. Think “Home Alone,” but with a wonderful aunt who made him feel special and loved while he waited for everyone to return from the game (which the Sox lost).

Dobrez has put many of his recollections into print and at intermission, he autographed copies of his newly published memoir “Root, Root, Root for the Home Teams.”

(For more information about Dobrez’s book, go to RootRootRootBook.com.)

In the same session, Eric McLendon of Berwyn told the bittersweet story of a unique family tradition—the Grogan cake. He said that his mom baked a Grogan once a year on New Year’s Day morning when he would wake up to the aroma of cinnamon, chocolate, pecans and caramel, an experience that is still vivid for him.

No one in his family knew where the tradition started, and the recipe eventually was lost, but the memories of his father and mother and the tradition of the Grogan live on in McLendon’s heart.

McLendon is very active on the storytelling circuit and was one of six storytellers selected to present to an audience of more than 1,000 people at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee.

Karen O’Donnell shares one of her many personal experiences at every Homewood Stories session. She revealed what motivates her to put so much energy into the franchise: O’Donnell said she cares deeply about the Homewood-Flossmoor community and she believes that helping people find common ground—no matter who they are or what they have experienced in life—is key to any strong community.

Giving people a venue to share their true selves with each other has become a mission for her.

“I want to see the ‘you’ in every story, and I am so excited to bring people together to share gifts of the heart,” she said. “I want to make sure the audience leaves uplifted. After all, they are coming here to have a good time.”

For Homewood Stories schedules and ticket information go to www.homewoodstories.org.

StoryShop builds confidence

“The hardest thing to write is a personal narrative and letting people know who you really are. People struggle with that, and I know it sounds crazy, but people are sometimes terrified of talking to an anonymous audience,” says “Homewood Stories” producer Karen O’Donnell.

To counter that fear and help people feel comfortable revealing their personal experiences to a crowd of strangers, O’Donnell has created “StoryShop,” classes in storytelling designed to help people get over any anxiety related to public speaking and to craft exquisite narratives.

“When we practice, we usually have improv games and other didactic exercises for the first half of the session,” she said. “The second half is for them to share their stories.

“I teach classes on crafting a story, building rapport with an audience, and just connecting. These stories are little pieces of oral history that bring people together to share pieces of their lives. The result is community.”

O’Donnell offers two levels of workshop: One is a single three-hour session that teaches would-be storytellers the basics of the craft and the second is a four-week storytelling course consisting of four three-hour workshops. O’Donnell said she offers the singleton classes monthly only when at least four-six people have signed up.

For more information, contact Dr. O’Donnell at [email protected].

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