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Eidfjord, Norway/Alan Lloyd

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Traveling In Our Minds

West Chester Armchair Program Celebrates 30 Years of Storytelling

Listening and sharing stories of past experiences and memories is an ancient method for bonding, especially during the cold months. After all, with fewer outdoor events and a slower rhythm of life, the winter is the best time to take a moment to reflect and share with those who matter to us.

It was in this spirit that “Miss Mary” Raffel, beloved former parks and recreation director at West Chester Township, created the Armchair Program in 1991. While she has since passed away, her programming lives on as a valuable resource for camaraderie, fun and learning.

The concept is fairly simple: about six times per winter, residents and friends gather to hear a traveler share stories, photographs, and other mementos of a journey to a far-off place. Over the 30 years of the program, more than 150 people have shared their experiences, and the attendees have collectively “visited” every single continent from the comfort of an armchair here in West Chester.

“People who aren’t able to travel or who want to get ideas for future travel love to come to these events,” says Laura Groff, the longtime Township administrative assistant who coordinates the Armchair Program. “Miss Mary was always aspiring to give people larger experiences through the Armchair Program, and she also enjoyed being able to ‘travel’ herself this way.”

Part of the longevity of the program comes from a regular following that also produces speakers for future sessions.

“Most of our speakers just approach me at a program and offer to do a program about somewhere they’ve been,” says Laura. “We’ve had some people who’ve done programs for years, and others who say they have a friend they’ll connect me to. Word of mouth does a lot to get us more speakers.”

Director of Public Information & Engagement Barb Wilson recalls presenting about a family trip to Switzerland with her young children many years ago.

“It was such a good experience with my boys, sharing the slides with memories of our trip,” says Barb. “We got to hear the questions that the audience had, and I think it made my kids feel special that they’d done something that people wanted to hear about.”

A lot of the programs are made special not just about having an exotic destination but by having a personal and specific story that engages the audience.

“Anyone can go to the Grand Canyon, but if someone took a special mule ride down and spent the night in the canyon, that makes the story much different and more vivid,” says Barb.

Andrew Reeder, Public Information Coordinator for West Chester Township, has created an interactive map online at WestChesterOH.org/government/parks/armchair-program that allows viewers to explore the many past destinations of Armchair Programs. If you’ve been somewhere that isn’t noted on the map, you might be a good candidate to speak!

While the program has found a loyal following among local senior citizens, the potential to learn something new appeals to quite a lot of audiences.

“This can be a great family-friendly program; a family can look at the topics and bring kids who are working on a report or learning about the place being featured,” says Barb. “We always encourage community members to explore our programming and get involved. We hope more people will find this program and enjoy it.”

Programs are typically held on select Friday nights during January, February and March at 7 p.m. in West Chester Township Hall, 9113 Cincinnati-Dayton Road. Anyone interested in being a speaker at a future series event should contact Laura Groff at West Chester Township. 

Check the website for topics, an interactive map and program updates. WestChesterOH.org


 

  • Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Tallinn, Estonia/Alan Lloyd
  • Copenhagen, Denmark/Alan Lloyd
  • Long Market Street in Gdansk, Poland/Alan Lloyd
  • Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia/Alan Lloyd
  • Copenhagen, Denmark/Alan Lloyd
  • The Armchair Program visits The Baltic Sea with Presenter Alan Lloyd. Photo by Kate Louagie
  • Eidfjord, Norway/Alan Lloyd