A Bitter-Sweet Announcement: Celebrating Erica

In the three years they’ve worked together at The Hearth, Erica Alexia Ledesma and Mark Yaconelli have heard a lot of stories. They’ve visited classrooms and curated storytelling events to help their community process the collective and personal trauma after a natural disaster ravaged their region. Erica led a project to center Latinx voices through storytelling and visual art with Mark’s support. Together, they facilitated workshops and personal storytelling sessions. Through story work, they’ve helped people heal, foster connections, and build community.

But the story of the storycatchers themselves is just as inspiring as any they have helped others tell. Upon meeting Mark and Erica, their rapport, mutual respect, and enduring friendship is clear to see. Erica is exuberant and joyful, laughing easily and often and drawing out story from unexpected places with the intensity of her compassion. Beside her, Mark is a steadying presence who listens to others with a singular focus, unwavering in his support.

Erica began doing story work even before she met Mark at The Hearth’s 2019 Certificate in Storytelling Cohort. Through a fledgling yet undeniably powerful event called Noche de Cuentos, she brought the Latinx community of the Rogue Valley together to share stories centered around a theme, much like the story nights put on by The Hearth.

As the Executive Director of The Hearth and the facilitator of the Certificate in Storytelling Cohort, Mark was already well established in his career and widely known for his storytelling work. But as soon as he met Erica, he knew this was a connection that could be deeply meaningful.

“My first thought was: Wow, I could learn a lot from this person,” Mark said.

The opportunity to do just that came from a representative of the Oregon Community Foundation, Roberto Franco. Not only did Roberto tell Mark how important it was that Erica be engaged in The Hearth’s story work, but he also found funding from the OCF for The Hearth to hire Erica for three years.

“She’s like a marathon runner,” he told Mark. “And you’re the guy standing by the sidelines holding the cup of water out to her as she runs by.”

It was a role Mark was glad to take on, eager to learn everything Erica could teach him. For her part, Erica was overjoyed to have the opportunity to deepen her story work.

“It was a blessing to be able to say yes to this work,” she said. “This is dream work, because it was my dream to do it.”

With his decades of experience in community storytelling, Mark taught Erica facilitation skills and how to create welcoming and intentional spaces to share stories. He also helped her learn the ropes of running a nonprofit and how to network and apply for funding.

Erica shared with Mark a new perspective and cultural aspects of storytelling from her own lived experience, bringing visual art and the sharing of food into their story practice.

“She taught me about the power of story as a healing force,” Mark said.

Through a storytelling workshop they facilitated together, Mark learned to step back from a story space when people of color or other marginalized identities are faced with a vulnerable moment or overwhelming prompt, to allow a storycatcher who can relate to that identity step in.

“There are lots of white spaces,” Erica said. “We need spaces to all be together, but we also need brown spaces to heal.”

Working as partners in story, Erica and Mark experimented with different approaches. With Mark’s support, Erica led a project called De La Raíz, gathering and sharing stories and visual art from Latinx community members in the Rogue Valley.

But all that changed in the summer of 2020 when the Almeda Fire ravaged the region. Over 2500 homes were destroyed and around 5000 people lost their housing. The Rogue Valley was left with thousands of climate refugees who needed homes and a collective trauma felt by everyone in the area. But the devastation was not distributed equally. The Latinx community was the hardest hit, and much of the Valley’s stock of affordable housing burned.

Erica and Mark responded to this disaster by bringing the community together to heal through story. They created an event called The Things that Do Not Burn/Las Cosas Que No Se Queman, which featured storytellers in English and Spanish. In this singular and powerful night of story, people from the Rogue Valley shared their experiences with the Almeda Fire. The curated collection of stories had a focus on tales of resiliency which were by turns solemn, heartbreaking, inspiring, and full of hope.

Together they created “The Compassionate Listening Team”—a group of local Spanish and English speaking community members who offered online and in-person listening spaces to local people in the wake of the tragedy. At one local school, where more than half the students had lost their homes in the Almeda Fire, Erica and Mark were invited to do story work with the youth to help them understand the trauma they had endured and were continuing to experience. Together, the storycatchers helped the students to bring forth powerful stories and emotions, and ultimately, find compassion for one another.

At the same time, Erica became increasingly involved in advocacy for fire survivors, and began to think about tackling the largest problem facing the Rogue Valley—the lack of housing. A year after the fires, more than half of all who had lost their homes were still unhoused, living in FEMA trailers, hotels, or wherever they could find shelter.

Mark, perhaps remembering the marathon runner analogy he’d heard two years prior, gave Erica space and support to pursue her calling. The work of The Hearth—to heal, connect, enrich, and mobilize communities for good—aligned with the work of Coalición Fortaleza, the nonprofit Erica founded to serve the critical housing needs of her community.

The grant from the Oregon Community Foundation gave Mark and Erica three years to work and grow together. Now, Erica is ready to step into her new role as the Executive Director of Coalición Fortaleza, where she’ll take on some of the hardest challenges facing her community. Speaking with her, it’s easy to see the determination, strength, and generosity of spirit that led Roberto Franco and the OCF to provide the opportunity for her three years of work at The Hearth, and to understand why Mark finds such joy in supporting her growth and providing a stable foundation for her to launch from.

“After three years, I see Erica as being stronger, more herself, and clearer of purpose,” Mark said.

“I’m more grounded in my ideas and vision,” Erica replied. “I was experimenting at first, but now I know what I want to do.”

Although Erica is leaving The Hearth, their partnership will continue. Storytelling is deeply ingrained in the way Erica approaches social problems, and her skill and calling as a storycatcher will always remain with her. And as she continues to run her marathon, to heed the call in her heart to serve her community with all she has, Mark will be there by the sidelines, cheering her on. Offering his support and friendship, a safe harbor should she need it.

“The story of our work together is the story of people from different cultures, different backgrounds, trying to honor each other,” Mark said, his voice heavy with emotion as he spoke of the end of their time working together at The Hearth.

Erica too was deeply moved in that moment, even as she looked ahead to the future and the many opportunities she was ready to take on.

“I’m so grateful,” she said.

Learn more about Erica and Mark’s projects:

Project De La Raíz

Elements of Home Art Exhibit

The Things That Do Not Burn/Las Cosas Que No Se Queman