The “Celebrating My Life” program has been introduced at The Harbor, a senior living center in Minnesota.

Willard Bergmann's Life Reflection Story

Willard Bergmann and his wife Ellen are pictured on the cover of Willard’s Life Reflection Story

By Paul Downer, Community Editor
Norwood Young America Times

Reprinted with permission from NYA Times 03.10.12

After 85 to 90 years of life, there are innumerable stories to be told and a lifetime of wisdom to be shared.

But sometimes recalling those stories can be difficult in one’s later years, and when an individual passes away, most of those valuable insights and memories are lost to history within a generation or two.

A new project undertaken at The Harbor in Norwood Young America, however, aims to preserve the life reflections of residents there in a tangible form that families can save and pass down indefinitely.

Three Harbor residents, Sylvia Kuenzel, Willard Bergmann and Leila Brelje, recently completed the first set of Life Reflection Stories produced through the project, and a special public open house to honor their achievement is planned for 10 a.m. on Saturday, March 10 at The Harbor. During the event, the residents will share their stories, which have been compiled in hardcover books complete with personal photographs, and present family members with signed copies of the books.

The Harbor is one of three Ecumen-managed locations selected to test the new writing program, titled “Celebrating My Life.” As part of the program, a small group of residents meet with Bonita Heilman, Community Relations Director and Legacy Navigator, twice a month to share, reflect and write about their life stories. After the writing process is complete, the stories are edited and published in the books.

As Heilman explained, the three residents involved in the first phase of the project were initially hesitant, but grew to enjoy the process.

“When I first asked the participants if they wanted to write a book about their life, they were hesitant. ‘My life isn’t that interesting, it won’t make a good story,’ and on and on they objected. But when we sat down and actually started reminiscing and sharing their stories in our group sessions, they talked and laughed and shared and remembered things they hadn’t thought about in years,” she said. “It’s not how much they write, but rather what they share from their life lessons and experiences that matters!”

Leila Brelje's Life Reflection Story

Leila Brelje’s book includes a photo on the cover that shows her at her confirmation in 1932.

Brelje, 93, said she had lived in New Germany her whole life before moving to The Harbor.

Even though she only went to school through 8th grade, finishing her formal education at 13 years of age, she is now the author of her own autobiography.

“I read the book and I thought it was pretty good,” Brelje said, adding that Heilman’s prompting and the feedback from Kuenzel and Bergmann helped her recall past events. “After they started talking, it gives you memories. It’s something new for me, something I really had to think about.”

Sylvia Kuenzel's Life Reflection Story

The cover of Sylvia Kuenzel’s
book shows Sylvia and her husband Dennis.

Heilman said that working in groups helped to spark memories, some good and some painful. Kuenzel, now 83, recalled learning to drive in a Model A Ford while growing up in Lafayette. Bergmann, on the other hand, recalled a serious car wreck in which he nearly died. The 85-year-old from Hamburg kept things mostly light while discussing his work on the book. “I had a fun life. I saved my face because I didn’t want to smile too much,” he said. “I never dreamt in my life that I would get old, but the Lord was very good to me. I have a good family.”

How about some advice? “Be honest. And if you’re going to be dishonest, at least tell them with a smile,” he said.

The completed books, each about 30 pages long and containing 12-16 personal photographs showing different stages of life, allowed residents the chance to reflect on topics like relationships, values and morals, different stages of life, and family events like the way they met their spouses.

“I love to read them. I hope their families appreciate them as much as I do because life isn’t the same anymore,” said Heilman. “You can really see the passage of time and people.”

The long-term plan is for all Harbor residents to have the opportunity to put together their own book. With 36 residents at the location, the hope is to complete 12 per year over the course of three years. While that will require sustained effort, Heilman doesn’t mind.

“That’s a pretty zealous goal, but I love this. I can’t believe this is my job,” she said.

Kuenzel, who had already been working on a legacy book for her grandson, enjoyed the extra opportunity to share her life.

“It was fun and I appreciate The Harbor. They have a lot of programs for us to participate in,” she said.

Housing Manager Laurie Hilgers said the process has been wonderful for all involved.

Life Reflection Story Book Signing

An invitation to the book signing celebration honoring the three authors

“It has been so enjoyable to see the excitement with the residents who have participated in this program,” she said. “They bring their life stories to their families in book form and pass their stories and wisdom from generation to generation. They are proud to see the value that is being placed on their lives and this project has enhanced their self-worth and empowered them to feel good about themselves. What an honor this is for both the residents and their families. This program reaffirms what we at The Harbor and Ecumen strive to do each and every day — to Innovate, Empower, and Honor our residents.”


The “Celebrating My Life” program was developed by Celebrations of Life, a Saint Paul-based company dedicated to helping individuals and families create a meaningful, affordable and personal legacy for their loved ones and communities. The company trains and certifies employees and volunteers within senior living organizations to become Legacy Navigators™ and offer the ongoing legacy programming to their clients or residents. Celebrations of Life also provides preservation support to assist each “author” in preserving and sharing their legacy keepsake for their loved ones and communities. A similar program is available to help hospice patients create an Ethical Will or Legacy Letter. For more information, contact Tracie Ward, President at 651-600-6412 or

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More about Life Reflection Stories: What they are and how to write your own

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