On December 19th, we will celebrate the publication of Letters to Doris with a free author talk, an opportunity for all to learn more about the book and Doris Buffett’s legacy of individual giving. If you would like to hear more about the creation of Letters to Doris, register for the author talk here. Below, the creative team behind the book reflects on their experience:
When we reflect on our experience as the road team creating Letters to Doris — two writers and one photographer — we find great similarities to the work of the Letters Foundation in other capacities. Letter readers receive envelopes that may be addressed to Doris Buffett, her brother, Warren, or the Letters Foundation. When they open that piece of correspondence, there is no telling what lies inside, besides a request for help.
That was our experience, too, traveling to interview 24 individuals who received grants from the Foundation over the years. Loading out all of our documentary recording and lighting gear, checking to see if this was the right house… those were the externals. The internal experience of going up to a door and knocking was analogous to opening the torn crease of an envelope addressed to Letters Foundation: in order to “open” the story, we first had to open ourselves to whatever was to be found inside.
Before we set off on our travels, we were advised by Letters Foundation staff that we’d encounter revealing and unexpected conversations. As Senior Program Officer Sharon put it, when she first phones a prospective grant recipient: “I make that call, and I’m changed.”
Conversations deepened quickly as we were welcomed into the homes of previous grant recipients. Our job was made so much easier by the previous work of the Letters Foundation: the care and generosity that had already been shown to these individuals empowered them to open up to us — to trust us with their stories.
Passing through 19 states in total, we were able to witness firsthand the life-changing effect of Letters Foundation grants, as well as the ongoing challenges individuals continue to face. These circumstances will not surprise those familiar with the work of the Letters Foundation. There was Vicky in Pensacola, FL, who had been granted a van to improve the quality of her husband Phil’s life in his final years of battling Multiple Sclerosis. When we arrived, Phil had just recently passed away. Devastated by her loss, Vicky found solace in recounting the entire arc of their love to us.
Kalie, a 12 year-old girl in Rockwell City, IA, had lost her policeman father in the line of duty. Now in the care of her single mother, Kalie needed assistance in her daily life as a diabetic, and a service dog that was capable of detecting when she experienced life-threateningly low levels of glucose and could dial 911 on a canine keypad to get help. When we visited Kalie, she took us through a park with her English Labrador, Holly, that had been dedicated to her father.
We were privileged to hear the philosophies of survivors of so many different kinds of life’s ills: attitudes of resolve, of gratitude, of persistence, and humor — of giving to others when one has so little to give in the first place — of never giving up. (We also collected a few new recipes!)
Being open to hearing these stories was our job, but openness is a two-way street. Stephanie, our photographer, found that after an interview, she was able to capture the vulnerable expression of a subject, those expressions that mark our face when we go to a funeral, fall in love or have a genuine conversation where we feel safe.
Work on Letters to Doris will forever impact our lives: how we perceive our jobs, but more how we perceive human connection, because all any of us really want to know is that we are not here alone. The Letters Foundation has taught us this anew, and working on Letters to Doris has been our greatest professional honor. We cannot wait for the release in December.