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Downtown studio helps people tell their story

Meghan McDonald and Sam Uhl have opened the Cheerful Word Life Stories Studio on Main Street in Hendersonville. Meghan McDonald and Sam Uhl have opened the Cheerful Word Life Stories Studio on Main Street in Hendersonville.

On their Harley-Davidson rides to the North Carolina mountains, Sam Uhl and her husband, Michael, had often agreed that "if we could ever move here we should."

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When their daughter, Meghan, married a Henderson County native, Christian McDonald, the dream came true. Sam and her husband, a contractor for Lockheed-Martin, moved from Cary to Hendersonville.
"The opportunity came up for me to plant our business and it has taken off," she said.
The business, called the Cheerful Word, would seem to be a perfect fit in an area that is home to many retirees with interesting lives and rich a Southern Appalachian culture that natives fear is fading from memory.
"So we now have Cheerful Word Life Stories Studio and the whole goal is to preserve people's life stories, and we do that in many ways," she said. "My favorite is books, because those can last forever and can be re-created and added to. We have a recording studio and we'll be encouraging people to come in, two at a time or three at a time and talk about their lives. They will always leave with a downloadable mp3 file or a USB file."
Uhl's business partner is Joe Kaplan, who came on board last year. The partners hired Meghan as creative director and opened the studio, in an underground space below Black Bear Coffee, on March 1. A grand opening is set for Wednesday, April 1.
Joe KaplanJoe KaplanKaplan met Uhl last year when he attended her memoir-writing workshop.
"You know my uncle is Morris Kaplan," he said. "My father (Louis) came here right after Morris did after World War II and we landed out in Canton. We were the only Jewish family there and all these years I knew I wanted to write about growing up that way and growing up in a small town in the South. My book is finished and we're getting ready to publish."
Meanwhile, Kaplan applied his business expertise to Uhl's growing company.
"I said we need to put together a real business out of this and have a physical location where people can find us," he said. "Our skills meshed and we put together this business plan and I think we have a great opportunity."
The Cheerful Word offers preservation services including heirloom and life-story books, guided memoir coaching, digital conversion of VHS tapes, slides and photos and free community workshops to help people preserve individual and family life stories and remembrances for future generations.


A young listener

Uhl traces her love for telling people's lives to an early interest in hearing their stories. "My mother was a fulltime nurse so when the babysitter wasn't available I would go to work at the nursing home and I would spend half my time toddling around listening to stories about World War I," she said. Even at a young age, she was fascinated "with these frail elderly people whose bodies were fragile but whose minds were still sharp."
When she became a home health worker, the pattern repeated itself. Elderly people told her bits and pieces of their lives.
"I just happened to be the one they shared it with," she said. "I started jotting it down and leaving it on the nightstand. Their families would cry. They really treasured it."
Making money for something that seemed like an act of kindness never occurred to her until a friend put it in perspective.
"Think about it. It's their children you're reaching," the friend told her. "You're not taking advantage of the elderly. You're reaching their children to preserve something that they already want preserved. They just don't know how to articulate it."
"And the Cheerful Word was born and it's been like seven years now. It took off the very next meeting (of a business network) I went to. It was a lame little elevator pitch. I said 'I guess I write life stories' and two people pulled out a checkbook and actually wrote me deposits, and I thought, 'I guess I have to figure out how to publish a book.'"
Working out of her apartment in Cary, she attracted clients locally and as far away as Florida and Portland, Ore.
"I kind of work wherever people want me," she said.
She became a certified guided autobiography instructor through the Birren Institute, named for a gerontologist who founded the guided autobiography method.
The Hendersonville studio offers a menu of options for preserving family stories. A half-hour recording session in the Story Booth costs $30.
"Our highest end product is a leather book, which includes up to 12 hours of guided interviews with one or two narrators," she said. Printed on archival quality paper, the option starts at about $30,000.
"There are many" who can afford that, she said. "There are some who do vanity books about their collections — of cars, walking sticks. Most of our clients are actually adult children who hire me for their parents."
She's found that the Hendersonville market is far different than Cary. She's been amazed at the number of people who have half-finished memoirs or years of journals they want to organize and preserve.
"I had to expand my services to offer memoir coaching," she said.
At the studio's website, www.cheerfulword.com, people interested in preserving their story can look for upcoming events. Among them are free memoir writing workshops starting April 7, a guided memoir writing workshop at the studio beginning May 7 and an online guided memoir writing workshop beginning April 11. The studio is at 318 N. Main St., Suite 15.