The plan was to build a pop up escape room that would be open for two weeks where visitors would learn about the Sixties Scoop from someone who lived through it. But the pandemic forced the Urban Society for Aboriginal Youth (USAY) to switch to a virtual model to tell Della Charles’ story.
“It’s sort of a Dungeons & Dragons meets escape room meets educational activity engagement sort of thing,” said LeeAnne Ireland, USAY executive director.
Ireland witnessed Charles’ struggle to get information from the government to learn about her birth family. She was sent all kinds of documents that on their own, weren’t helpful.
“Della had received sort of this file of documents and they were really weird and we didn’t know what they all meant,” said Ireland. “We were trying to piece together her story and I like escape rooms, I like puzzles and I said, you know, this is so much like an escape room, I wonder if people would relate to a survivor story, if we presented it in that way?”
Della was born in the early 1960s and was removed from her Indigenous family home and placed with another family that wasn’t Indigenous. It was a Government of Canada practice spanning 20 years that resulted in the loss of cultural identity for the children who were ‘scooped’.
“Della being so open and sharing her story and what she went through,” Ireland said. “And not really hiding the fact that going through the Sixties Scoop impacted her life personally and how she raised her kids and all of the legacy that left for her, she was really raw and open about it and I think that’s what people connect with in the story the most.”
Ireland was hoping to share Della’s story with about 150 people at an in-person pop up escape room. But virtually, the story has reached thousands all over North America and people who’ve played it like that fact that it’s based on actual events and tell a real person’s story of overcoming trauma and finding a way towards healing.
“Through this journey she’s found out pieces of her own story that she never knew before,” said Ireland. “With so many people going through the escape room and sharing her story and expressing how much it’s meant to them, it’s been massively healing (for her) and she feels she’s going to leave a legacy behind from this.”
SHARING GRANDMOTHERS’ STORY
Part of that legacy is her 23-year-old grandson Jared Nelson who now hosts groups taking part in the virtual escape room. He shares his grandmother’s story with strangers so they can learn about Indigenous history in Canada and he’s learning too.
“If it wasn’t for her being brave enough to tell me her story and tell everybody else, I wouldn’t have been able to do that learning,” he said. “So it’s helped me out a lot, I’m not going to lie, I didn’t know anything about it beforehand so her opening up and telling me definitely open up my eyes.”
A promotion for Charles’ story describes it as a hosted virtual escape room that allows teams of three to eight people to uncover clues while discovering the story of a Sixties Scoop survivor. The teams are positioned as junior scientists from the future that are tasked with finding memories from a residential school classroom, an old barn and an office to unlock a final room.
“We really just want them to listen, explore the story, sit back, relax,” said Nelson. “And hopefully we do a little bit of learning, I try my best to teach some stuff but the biggest point to have fun in my opinion.”
Ireland said many students have gone through the escape room to learn Della’s story. The escape room acts as a conversation starter and contributes to team building and many companies are signing up.
“Jazz Air, ATB and even United Way and Calgary Foundation and then also people just trying to encourage their teenage kids to learn more about history,” she said. “They’re doing it as a family so it’s really everyone, it’s so massively more appealing than I ever could have predicted.”
Now Ireland is looking to expand to tell more Indigenous stories through the virtual escape room platform.
“I kind of thought this was the most harebrained idea and no one is going to enjoy this,” she said. “I never thought that one little organization in Calgary creating a virtual escape room, learning how to use things like Blender for the first time to create these 3D rooms (would be popular).”
Learn more about Della’s story here:https://usay.ca/dellas-story/
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