Great Ways to Share Your Graduate’s Life Story

graduate, life, student, high school, collegeStudents all around the country are wrapping up their semesters. The internet is exploding with pet videos to soothe their weary minds and parents and grandparents everywhere are making celebration plans for their graduates. As promised, following are some ideas for preserving these young folks’ life memories to date. In fact, years from now it is often the stories of childhood and youth that we beg our older relatives to tell just one more time.  Decades in the future your fabulous young person’s family will love to see photos and hear stories of events that helped shape them into who they are.



How Can You Help?

Problem Solved–continue reading for your 3 step, easy plan to make this happen 


Here are 3 steps to focus your ideas, gather material and then what you can do with this wonderful story. The key to creating this in a short amount of time is to narrow the scope of your project, gather all your material in one place and then use some easy online or physical tools to make it a tangible reality.


Step 1

Pick Your Person and Your Focus

Let’s use the example of a high school or college age young person about to graduate. Decide whether you want to run through a quick general story of their life or focus on a theme of sports, music, hobbies or other interest. For young folks I recommend doing an overview of their life as it shows so many different sides of who they are as a person. This is who you want to honor, right? Even big “kids” delight in seeing photos and hearing stories about when they grew up. Include these original bits, it shows them how valued and loved they are.

I spoke with a gifted wedding photographer earlier this week and she emphasized the importance of having some hard copy photos of your life events. Hang them around your house, put them in an album for the coffee table, put them in places you can actually hold and touch. Printed photos are preserved and enjoyed in a way that purely digital photos just can’t compete with. Besides, when that solar flare finally hits or some other catastrophe, don’t you want to have a photo of the people you love to hold even if you don’t have electricity? Oh yes you do! And we all know those convenient cell phones that hold most of your photos sometimes meet an untimely end in laundry or toilet. Don’t make them the sole repository of your life’s memories.


Step 2

Gather Your Material

Pull together photos, artwork, notes and stories from a representative sample of years. I like to take material and photos from about every 2-3 years during a young person’s life. This will usually capture major changes and life events as well as show a progression of growth and interests.

It would be a great idea to interview your subject about some of their key memories of growing up. Even an hour or two of visiting can give you a wealth of stories to type up and include in your book. Best of all, you’ll both enjoy the process and you’ll also have their voice telling the stories. How awesome is that?

Best tip ever:

Do include a few school photos


Use primarily candid photos; they truly capture

the essence of someone’s personality.


childhood, kids, memories, life storyLike this one!

My hands down favorite photo of my brother and I.

So thankful my mom had the foresight to take one

showing us as we looked most of the time instead of

all spiffed up in dress clothes.






11 Interview Questions to get you Started

What do you think are the 3 most important things in life?

Who was/is your best friend in school and why?

What are 10 things that make you laugh?

What do you imagine the world will look like 100 years from now?

What is your favorite childhood memory?

Who was your favorite teacher and why?

Describe your pet(s) and why you enjoy them.

Describe your siblings and what you enjoy doing together.

What things do you enjoy for fun?

Who has been the kindest to you?

Describe a happy moment in your life.


 Step 3

Publish Your Story—Print it

Create a tangible book that your graduate can hold and page through, sharing with others. There are several different ways you can do this. Here are 3:

*Scrapbook–A few years ago this was all the rage and can still be a popular tool to creatively share your story. If you enjoy this dig out your supplies, pick up a new album and then give yourself some time to create a beautiful work of art with these saved memories.

*Shutterfly or similar photo book—photo books that can be created online give you quite a bit of creative flexibility and will turn out a nicely bound high quality book. Coupons abound for these types of gifts and the digital creation process is designed to be pretty simple. And yes, you can have both text and photos in the book. Make sure to use both as years from now they’ll want the story behind the photos. Frequent sales with these companies can often bring the price down to not much more than producing it at the local print shop.

*Copy Shop coil bound book—if dollars are tight, never fear, your young person will appreciate and cherish this book format just as much. Here’s a couple ways to do this—first–computer set up– take the photos and text you’ve collected and arrange them in a document on your computer. You can get creative with color, text styles and photo placement. When you like the way it looks create a PDF file to lock everything in place. Then, put it on a jump drive, take it to your local copy shop and have them print up several copies with a coil binding and nice quality paper. Use a heavier glossy card stock for the cover and glossy finish paper inside to really make those photos pop. A book like this will usually run less than $20 to print.

For each of these options I encourage you to include at least a couple photos that are black and white. You can easily convert your color images to this classic style. They have a timeless quality that somehow shows the subject in a different way that really draws out their personality and character.

Now print or order several copies of your gift book. I guarantee it will stand out and it will be cherished, there is nothing more unique and precious than someone’s life story. Your graduate will treasure this always. And of course, you’ll want one for yourself and other family members as well.

Have fun with the process of making this amazing gift for your beloved young person. They will love it and remember it always.

Best Wishes to you and your graduates!


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Life Advice from a Centenarian: Marry a Younger Man!

Betty Somppi, photo courtesy of her friend Karen Wood

This advice was characteristic of Betty Somppi’s lively take on life. Although she  passed away this spring just days after witnessing the dedication of the Women Veterans Monument in Las Cruces, her words and lifelong enthusiasm continue to make the media rounds. Her life impact hasn’t stopped. Take a look at the video interview on the City of Las Cruces FaceBook page and notice her lifestory book, the photos and her enjoyment in talking about her life. Below is a profile I wrote about her after a fascinating conversation back in 2016. I’m so glad she took the time to share a bit of her life’s history while she was living. You don’t have to wait till someone is writing your obituary to do the same. (Photo–Betty Somppi, courtesy of her friend, Karen Wood)


You can save your family stories too!


A few days ago I had the privilege of giving a workshop to the Las Cruces Association of Educational Retirees, providing some practical inspiration for sharing their stories. Who should I meet later in the audience but one of my favorite teachers, Hannah Monsimer. Seventh grade English teacher extraordinaire! If that’s not a tough job I don’t know what is. Of course, I gave her a big hug and told the group she was responsible encouraging my love of writing. She was kind, tough and an excellent teacher; qualities I am grateful for to this day. Thank you Mrs. Monsimer!


Betty Somppi


Betty Somppi was enjoying a new career as a lab technician at a Cincinnati hospital “when the war came along…Most women wanted to do something and there weren’t that many choices for women. We were very interested and we wanted to be involved more than just going around the community. So I applied when we first heard about the Women’s Army Corps, which was WAAC (Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps) at that time. She recalls that the bill passed in March and by July the first class of officers were in training. “That shows how quickly Congress can work when they want to,” she laughs.


She served in the WAAC for about a year before it became the WAC (the women’s branch of the United States Army). “We had to apply all over again and had to have our physicals all over again and we didn’t know until the word came back from Washington, whether we had been accepted or not. That was very traumatic for some of the women who had been there for a year. Somppi remembers Colonel Oveta Culp Hobby of Killeen, Texas served as the first director of both the WAAC and then the WAC. “Mrs. Hobby” as she was called built the Corps to over 100,000 in under a year.


Somppi explains that this new organization had no officers or enlisted people. “They picked 1400 women from those who applied throughout the United States,” she says, “We went into officers training with the idea that if we did not complete OC (Officer Candidate) we would be enlisted. They were recruiting enlisted people at the same time…These 1400 women were put into the first nine officers classes.” She was in her early twenties when she entered the fifth OC class.


She arrived at Fort Des Moines Provisional Army Officer Training School in July, 1942 the day the first class graduated and heard Colonel Hobby speak. “I think if anybody thought this was going to be some sort of a glamour deal, they got a good shock. We got off the train and had our suitcases in hand and got piled into the back of a six by truck and taken to the base. Once we got to the base we were assigned to our quarters. We had all male officers for those nine classes because there were no WAC officers trained yet.”


After graduation she was assigned to the base. “I was in the training section doing the basic training. After they finished that they went either into motor transport or clerks or cooks and bakers. Those were the three fields that they were training for and had schools at Fort Des Moines.” Within a year the army had women in 274 fields in the military. Somppi says,


“I really did love that and so I spent

the whole war training  women to do things

that I would have loved to have gone and done.”


In December of ’42 she was one of the first to be sent to Chemical Warfare School for six weeks along with five other women at Edgewood Arsenal, Maryland. “My job was to go back and teach chemical warfare to the people at Fort Des Moines.”She’s kept newspaper clippings from that time and says, “It (the school) was very very good. There were I think something like 180 army and a few marines and air force, all men and then us six women. We were all single and we had a great time. Everybody was curious about us, we were still pretty new and there were only a few out in the field. We were the equivalent of second lieutenants and wore gold bars. The general down there invited all six of us to all the fancy Christmas parties, he would send his car over to our quarters for us…they always had the general’s star on the car and the people on the ground always had to salute when it went by…it was interesting.”


Somppi says, “The old fort (Des Moines) looked a great deal like Ft. Bliss, big parade ground, big enough to play two horse polo teams. I walked to work every morning. My office was in Boomtown. The trainees came to us as a class, as a unit of a company and we trained them in military customs and courtesies and the history of the army; all those things that they still do today. Boomtown was just being finished, there were not streets yet and those companies waded to our classrooms through the mud. In fact, they used to come in with a shovel to get the mud off the floor before they swept it. It was a lot of fun.” She says the best food the army ever had was in those mess halls.


From there Somppi was stationed at Fort Oglethorpe as Director of Training, later helping close that base down. She says, “I remember the day that they announced that the war ended, the colonel at Ft. Oglethorpe’s son was killed that very day.” She returned to Fort Des Moines and served as Operations Officer at the separations center, processing returning military personnel. During that time the war in the Pacific ended and her husband was sent back from China.


The Somppis were married during the war, “We always said those wartime marriages never ended. Ours ended last March at 72 years. We were very fortunate.” They had difficulty meeting up to marry, “Jimmy was about three days later than the date we had set because at that time troop trains were pushed aside to get the freight through…He was a corporal when we were going to get married and by the time he got up there he had his third stripe on. I had just got my captain’s bars a couple of months before.” The couple met seven years before while she was teaching first grade in Pennsylvania. He was a senior in high school at that time. When asked her secret to a long life and sharp brain she laughs, “I always tell people


‘Marry a younger man!’


Jimmy was six years younger than me which at that time was something pretty shocking…that long marriage is a great comfort to me now.” This trip will be in Jimmy’s honor. She lives in independent living at White Acres and celebrated her 101st birthday the day after this interview. She says,


“I’ve been very lucky.”


Although the couple was stationed in Washington, DC, they had never seen the memorial. After Jimmy passed away, Betty’s close friend Karen Woods asked her if she would consider going on Honor Flight of Southern New Mexico’s (also serving El Paso) Mission 9 this fall. She says, “I said yes, I think now I should. I felt like this was something I could look forward to, I needed that right at that moment. I’m ready; I’m very excited about it.” The couple had three daughters; their eldest, Sharon, will be going along on the Honor Flight late this September as her mother’s guardian.


What stands out from her service days are she says, “The wonderful people that came through Fort Des Moines. Everybody wanted to come and see what happened… We had Mrs. Roosevelt and many many outstanding people all came and talked to us as an officers group; I’m sure they did to a lot of the enlisted too. We met them and felt personally greeted. Mrs. Roosevelt managed in the receiving line to say something personal to everybody and you felt like you had met her, you know?”


Somppi sounds a bit wistful, “Every person that worked with me or for me is gone, my secretary in my office just died last year and that was the last one of the friends that I had kept in touch with for many years.” She is a charter member of the Women’s Memorial in Washington, DC. If you visit there you can view her biography and photo as part of the data base. She’s proud of her groundbreaking service, “We were right there at the beginning. We got a lot of kidding about it. People around Des Moines were used to us and were very welcoming and very nice to us. It was fun…I became a friend of the general (Major General Gwendolyn Bingham) when she was at White Sands. I was so proud that we had anything to do with that, they recognized us and said ‘Well you got it started you know.’ They talked about how far women in the military have come, they fill every field now and they’ve held every rank and it’s wonderful to see.”


Thanks for taking the time to read about Betty’s life. This next week I’ll be bringing you some tips for capturing life stories of folks a bit younger, the graduates in your life. Stay tuned!



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Sensory Triggers Help with Memory Impairment

Pets, memory, health benefitsTaking time to intentionally remember, to encourage and help draw out memories for people who are struggling with memory impairment are critical for quality of life and slowing down the process of memory loss. Our memories can help us feel connected and loved. If you have a memory challenged family member or friend encourage their “remember when…” moments by using sensory triggers. These might be a photo, smells like baked goods, apples, green chile or perfume. Or it might be a favorite item of clothing, music or the furry touch of a pet. Get creative and ask them what they remember when you share these prompts. Its wonderful exercise for the brain and you may learn some things you didn’t know about their life.


The health benefits of sharing

memories are transformative.


Medical research has shown that writing down or talking about memories can be therapeutic and healing. It can even help promote increased memory retention and sharpen thinking in some memory impaired people. In her blog  The Heart and Craft of Lifewriting writer Sharon Lippincott comments on a memoir entitled Growing Old, by Swiss psychoanalyst Danielle Quinodoz:  “The book focuses on the enormous value elderly people derive from reviewing their memories and attaining an integrated overview of their lives, …People who are able to view their lives in this meaningful way experience more joy in living…They tend to approach aging more actively, retaining curiosity and involvement with life and the people around them….”


My mother used the memory trigger of music when her sister began losing her memory. She says, “Right until she got real bad I would call her and we would sing together. Sometimes we’d sing Christmas songs, even if it was July. She would even harmonize up till the last. We kept singing until she couldn’t sing anymore. But she listened.”


This is for my Auntie:

The cancer came back after three years in remission. Only this time she didn’t know it. Those three years had brought a crushing avalanche of change. She was aware of all the changes the first year, then the second she just stopped caring. During that time people had started to look at her funny. During that time her youngest daughter, a grown woman of 42, had died of a massive heart attack; she had just lain down and not woken up. She heard sometimes as people whispered the word “mercy” when they talked about her daughter in voices that were a bit too loud.

 She remembered Kelly, but it was as if she had gone somewhere far away and would be coming back soon. She just couldn’t remember when. But she looked for her every day. The anticipation of seeing her was a joy. Her husband never mentioned their daughter anymore. She wondered about that. But he had become kind and somewhat vague and somehow too careful of her. She wondered about that too. But not for long anymore.

Staring out the window at the succulent garden she had planted years ago in pots on the back patio she marveled at the beautiful designs of the leaves. She stared at the swirling patterns of a hen and chick and tried to make sense of it. She asked her husband about the chicken plant but he didn’t know what she was talking about. That was frustrating. After a while she gave up trying to explain it to him. She wondered why he was so dense.

Her sister called often to sing with her. Somehow the words to the songs were still there in her mind. They always came to her. Laughter and singing. And ice cream milkshakes with whipped cream and a cherry on top. These were bright and clear. For a while.


Make new memories, remember old ones, love well.


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    Karen Ray

    Address: 331 Bristol Avenue, Las Cruces, NM, 88001

    Phone: 575-323-1048