In Rio de Janeiro, reading project connects people during the pandemic

Every week, Cristina Ávila, 45, picks up her phone in the neighborhood of Anil, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and dials phone numbers that she’d never called before. Meanwhile, every week in Cidade de Deus, a neighborhood in the northern region of the city, the phone of Rosângela Oliveira – or Aunt Rô –, 62, receives a call from someone whose voice she does not recognize.

Just over a month ago, people who have never ever exchanged words before now come together through stories and poetry that are shared over the phone, forming connections that started in Rio de Janeiro and that today extend to the African continent – with Brazilians that reside in Kenya receiving calls.

This is how the Stories by Phone project, promoted by the Secretary of Culture and Creative Economy of the State of Rio de Janeiro, is proposing that people feel less alone in the midst of social isolation, caused by the new coronavirus pandemic.

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Every week, Cristina Ávila, 45, picks up her phone in the neighborhood of Anil, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and dials phone numbers that she’d never called before. Meanwhile, every week in Cidade de Deus, a neighborhood in the northern region of the city, the phone of Rosângela Oliveira – or Aunt Rô –, 62, receives a call from someone whose voice she does not recognize.

Since April, people who have never ever exchanged words before now come together through stories and poetry that are shared over the phone, forming connections that started in Rio de Janeiro and that today extend to the African continent – with Brazilians that reside in Kenya, Switzerland, Portugal, the United States and Spain receiving calls.

This is how the Stories by Phone project, promoted by the Secretary of Culture and Creative Economy of the State of Rio de Janeiro, is proposing that people feel less alone in the midst of social isolation, caused by the new coronavirus pandemic.

It was precisely a call with Aunt Rô during the first week of the coronavirus quarantine that made Pedro Gerolimich, the 39-year- old Superintendant of the City’s Reading and Knowledge Secretariat, scratch his head and ponder a way to help people deal with the loneliness brought on by isolation. Aunt Rô lives alone with her six dogs.

“I kept thinking about my parents who are alone at home, thinking about my uncles and these elderly people living on their own with no one to talk to”, he said during an interview with the United Nations Information Center for Brazil (UNIC Rio). “That was how the idea of creating the project and using stories and poetry as a tool for connecting people came up.”

The storytellers and listeners can register for the initiative by completing two simple forms online. What the Secretariat did not expect, however, was the fast and overwhelming response from the public.

In three months, Stories by Phone already has more than 1,600 volunteers and more than five thousand “listeners” or people who have received calls all over Brazil – in addition to listeners who receive calls abroad. Initially intended only for the elderly, today anyone who feels alone during the quarantine is welcome to participate.

The writer and civil servant Cristina Ávila signed up for the project the moment she heard about it. Reciting her own poems and passages from her books, she has connected with about 15 people since the social isolation measures began. “If today I didn’t have the project, I don’t know how I would manage because it has become part of my daily routine”, said Christina, who also lives alone.

During one of her last calls with a woman named Maria, Christina realized that the need that both the recipient and the caller have to connect in this way was mutual. “If I have the chance, I would like to meet Maria personally one day, strengthen these ties and give her a hug”, Christina said.

The feeling of affection is the same for Aunt Rô. Each time she receives a call, she said, she feels like she’s creating a new friendship.

Human contact – hugs and sharing emotion- is what Aunt Rô misses the most. “[The project] is showing me how important I am, that I am not alone, that we need each other”, she said.

Every day people from different age groups register to participate in the project. There are volunteers from 10 to 80 years old, while listeners are as old as 99. Many people who initially received calls later became volunteers in the programme.

“It is a breath of hope”, said Pedro Gerolimich. “If we try to find a positive side to this situation brought on by the virus, I think it is the ability of humans to look at each other, reinvent themselves and rethink their lives in a more collective sense”.

Books and social distancing –  The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognizes that “through reading, we can open ourselves to others despite distance, and we can travel thanks to imagination”. For UNESCO, “at a time where most of the schools around the world are closed and people are having to limit to spent their time outside, the power of books should be leveraged to combat isolation, reinforce ties between people, expand our horizons, while stimulating our minds and creativity”.

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