By Christine Steele
Angela Burton found her purpose helping older adults write their stories. Named a 2020 Next Avenue Influencer in Aging, Burton founded Feet to the Fire Writers' Workshops® in 2014, at age 50. The program encourages older adults to put pen to paper and in the process, helps them build connections, a sense of self, and find purpose. Here, Angela tells her story to our writer, Christine Steele.
The aging process shouldn't be feared -- it should be embraced, and it is never too late to find your purpose in life. Sometimes, simply writing and reflecting on your life experiences can help you realize your life's purpose, putting it right in front of you.
This is what Angela Burton wants everyone to know.
However, when Angela had the idea to create a writing workshop for older adults, it wasn’t for something big. Quite the opposite, in fact. It was for something small.
She had been teaching writing at colleges and universities in Kentucky for years, but was looking for something other than a classroom environment.
She envisioned a handful of folks interested in putting pen to paper sitting in front of a fire in her cozy Louisville home. Even for that small idea, she went all in. She created flyers, built a website, and spread the word on social media.
“I had to create a buzz about what I wanted to happen, not fully knowing if it would work,” Burton said.
But it did work. So many people signed up for the first workshop, she had to create a second one. And Feet to the Fire Writers' Workshops was born.
A Father's Words
Burton’s father, Joe Kirtley, on his birthday, reading something his daughter wrote.
Burton's father, Joe Kirtley, who died in 2012, had taken up writing in his later years.
“He was getting sick and had to start giving up things,” Burton said of her dad. “Golf was one of his favorite things and he had to give it up. I think what was happening was, he was slowly losing his independence, and he was writing and making sense of his life. He found purpose in doing that. It was a bright spot and something he could work on on his own. He was completely unprompted by me. And we—his family—were the receivers of these amazing stories and essays and poems.”
He was even getting some published in the local newspaper, Burton said.
“He was very much a people person, so I think when he was getting things published in the newspaper, that was also giving him a voice,” she added.
A Mother's Advice
Burton, with her mother, Faye Kirtley, still vibrant at age 91.
A few months after launching Feet to the Fire, Burton’s mother, Faye Kirtley, decided to join. After attending, she told her daughter, “I think there’s something to this. Your dad really enjoyed this so much. I get it now, because I've been a part of it. You should think about doing this for people like me.”
“What do you mean like you, mom?” Burton asked.
“Old people,” Faye Kirtley responded.
“Oh, mom, you’re not old,” Burton said she told her then 85-year-old -year-old mother.
“I still don’t think of my mom as old,” she said, “but that’s when I started thinking about how I could take what I started and move it into the retirement community space.”
She began pitching Feet to the Fire Writers' Workshops, a name she trademarked early on, to retirement communities in the Louisville area, and soon signed up her first client for a year of weekly workshops.
An Ember's Glow
Participants pick up a pen during a Feet to the Fire Writers’ Workshop, while Burton facilitates.
Burton quickly found plenty of other 80, 90, and even 100-year-olds benefited from Feet to the Fire Writers' Workshops in ways that went far beyond the page.
“At first, some were hesitant because they had never done this before and thought they had to be a “quote” writer. We say this is not about being a writer. This is about being in the process of writing. It's not about getting published. It's not even about your grammar, or how beautiful your handwriting is. It's about being in the process of looking back on your life and writing the stories that only you can write. Once they understood that, they were really in for the ride.”
What she discovered—and what the participants themselves discovered—surprised them all.
“They were able to pull up memories that they thought had been long since forgotten,” Burton said. “For example, people with any kind of cognitive decline—even mild cognitive decline—were surprising themselves,” she said. “They were remembering things that happened 70 years ago.”
The stories weren’t the only benefit of the workshops.
“When I first approached this,” Burton said, “I thought it was about helping people write their legacy stories for future generations. And there is that, of course. It created all kinds of content to leave for their family and friends. But what I found out that was even better was what was happening to them in the process of reflecting on their life. It was very mentally healthy.”
Burton with participants from a Feet to the Fire Writers’ Workshop.
In addition to the personal enrichment, there was another benefit as well. It was the social aspect of meeting and sharing their writing in a group setting, Burton said.
“Sometimes they were sharing their stories with their families, but sometimes they weren't,” she said. “But they were sharing with each other in these groups. People need that connection. And to feel like they belong. They need to feel like they're part of the whole process that everybody is striving towards. You're all trying to reach a similar goal and you feel bound together because you're working on something together.”
Learning to Grow
In 2015, after a story ran on the front page of the Louisville Courier Journal, Burton began receiving calls from all over Kentucky—and the rest of the country. Retirement communities in Texas, California, and Florida wanted the program too.
“I just kept getting requests from people,” Burton said. ‘“How do we have this? How do we get this?’ I kept saying we're not at that point yet. But in the back of my head, I kept thinking I've got to figure this out because obviously it's something that's needed.”
Flash forward three years to 2018. Burton had been facilitating workshops at senior living facilities all over Louisville. She learned of a program to help female-led start-ups, called the The Wild Female Founder Accelerator Program.
“I didn’t really think of myself as a startup or a founder,” Burton said. “I had never done a pitch before. They got over 80 applications from female founders. I was one of 10 semifinalists. Then we were invited to pitch our big idea to a group of investors, entrepreneurs and mentors, and they were going to choose three.”
She had to revise her pitch on the fly once she saw the room.
“They were all young. I don’t think there was anybody older than 35 or 40. I’m talking to them about aging and leaving your legacy and that resonated because everybody has a parent or grandparents or great grandparents, and everybody wishes they had those stories.”
By 2019, she had created a license agreement and began selling the program to her first out-of-state customers. She would provide onsite training for senior living staff and provide them with the products she created.
In addition to senior living facilities, other groups signed up as well. One was a Parkinson’s nonprofit. Another serves people with intellectual disabilities. Feet to the Fire Writers' Workshops® has also been used by cancer and grief support groups.
“This was surprising to me that this program would be relevant in all these different populations,” she said. “So, that was another “Aha!” moment.”
When COVID-19 hit, it changed things dramatically. With residents in senior living no longer able to gather in person, Burton felt there was an even greater need for the program, since people were becoming more isolated.
She started doing workshops via Zoom, and created a consumer version, Feet to the Fire Writers’ Workshops Writer’s Kits and Virtual Groups.
In November 2020, she was named an “Influencers in Aging” by Next Avenue -- a PBS digital publication for people over 50.
While Covid has put many in-person groups on pause, Burton is still doing a Monday morning Zoom meeting with clients in their 80s and 90s, not wanting those connections to be lost.
“There's a lot of research about life purpose and longevity that shows it actually helps people live healthier lives, longer lives,” she said.
Finding Her Own Purpose
Burton had just turned 50 when she founded the program.
“It was the perfect mid-life turning point,” she said. “I wanted to do something that would selfishly make me happy and it evolved.”
She said she never could have imagined what it would become.
“My goal was to pay my bills and be happy. By envisioning and creating Feet to the Fire Writers' Workshops, I not only proved to myself that I could dare to dream and make it happen, but I have changed people's lives for the better by inspiring them to express themselves through reflecting—and often fondly remembering—their life stories.”
Knowing the stories they've written have created purpose for them, but also leave a legacy for their loved ones is all Burton said she ever hoped for.
“It has become one of my greatest accomplishments, and an achievement I'll have forever."