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StoryCorps: Oral History Project Takes O.C. Stories All the Way to the Library of Congress

An oral history of Orange County will now find its way to the Library of Congress thanks to a new exhibit at Cadence Park in Irvine. 

The story-collection project is called “Stories from the O.C.” and is part of a nationwide effort from StoryCorps to record thousands of stories from around the country, where people from all walks of life interview each other in a campfire-themed exhibit with cozy recording booths. 

StoryCorps’ mission is simple: To collect, share and preserve stories of people. Yet the ambitious nonprofit has already amassed one of the largest collections of digitally recorded human stories and received a Peabody Award for compiling a history that “will forever serve as a central component in the collective memory of America.” 

Bringing the exhibit to Orange County was the idea of Emile Haddad, chairman and CEO of FivePoint Communities, after he visited the exhibit in Los Angeles. “FivePoint believes strongly in creating spaces and opportunities where people from all walks of life can connect, feel energized and experience something meaningful,” he said. “Stories from the O.C. is the perfect extension of our mission to introduce experiences that enrich people’s lives and move humanity forward.”

Haddad also participated in the recordings when his daughter, Serene Haddad, interviewed him about his journey from being born in Lebanon to coming to the United States at 28 with no money to achieving the American dream. 

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The recorded interview sessions are open to the public and take place in custom-designed airstream trailer recording booths called “story booths.” In years past, StoryCorps has placed their story booths in locations including NYC’s Grand Central Station, the San Francisco Public Library, the Chicago Cultural Center and, now, in Irvine!

Founded by Dave Isay, StoryCorps also collected and recorded “remembrance interviews for each of the nearly 3,000 victims of the September 11, 2001 and February 26, 1993 attacks,” which are housed at the World Trade Center Memorial Museum. The initiative for the 9/11 Memorial and Museum “shares oral histories from survivors, rescue workers, witnesses, service providers and others.”

Other StoryCorps exhibits nationwide have attracted the likes of former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, but the real purpose of the traveling installations is to capture the stories of regular people with diverse backgrounds and points of view. 

The Irvine-based “Stories from the O.C.” exhibit opened its doors on August 15 and will go until December 31. Anyone can tell their story or conduct an interview by setting an appointment at StoriesFromTheOC.com. Or, for those who cannot make it out to the exhibit, there is a StoryCorps app to record and upload interviews online. 

In November, StoryCorps will roll out the “Great Thanksgiving Listen,” a nationwide initiative for high school students which encourages them to interview an elder member of their family during the Thanksgiving holiday. And at the end of the exhibit in December there will be a “listening party” for people to hear the stories and reflect on their significance. 

For the Orange County exhibit, participants have chosen to interview friends or family members and the topics of discussion are as varied as the participants themselves: 

Eli Valdez sat down to have a conversation with Katherine Pearlman. The two met after Katherine saw Eli’s flier at a Starbucks. Eli was in need of a kidney transplant, and Katherine answered the call. 

Donna Schwartze — a longtime teacher and director at Irvine Community Nursery School — tells April Reese, the mother of one of her students, three-year-old Jack, about her approach with preschool kids. 

The Chu family talked about the transition and culture differences they experienced growing up in the U.S. after immigrating from Taiwan.

Husband and wife Serafina and Ed Raskin talk about their son’s diagnosis with Type-1 Diabetes and how it changed their family and work life. 

By the time the exhibit concludes, the hope is to have created a rich tapestry of personal stories that describe the fabric of Orange County. These recorded conversations will be available on StoryCorps’ online archive as well as at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.