The March event, "Love Stories," netted more than 200 pounds of food for the Ashland Food Bank.

There's a stage. There's an audience. There's a lone person facing that audience. It's all set up so the roles and rules are clear, but when that person starts telling a story, all the roles and the rules fade into the background.

What's left is people sharing.

Helen Whitcomb begins, haltingly at first, to tell a room of more than 100 strangers a detailed, 10-minute story of her last days with her mother before her mother died.

It's a relatively unprepared, unrehearsed story. There are unexpected emotional pauses filled by respectful noises of support and encouragement from the audience, as if the group is telling her it's OK to go on.

There are details scattered through the story that make it all the more real, such as when Whitcomb describes waking to the sound of birds one morning in her parents' home while she was there to see her mother one last time. Her entire family had come together for the poignant final moments.

"The birds of your childhood have a special relevance and these were my birds," she says.

Like telling a story to a friend in the kitchen, Whitcomb tells how she struggled to find the appropriate emotions at the time. She describes saying goodbye to her mother and family and returning home to California.

Whitcomb ends with the observation, "We've never been all together in the same room since," and the room erupts in applause.

These are the moments Mark Yaconelli is trying to create through The Hearth: Real Stories by Regular Folks, a monthly storytelling event that benefits charity.

"Everybody's got a story; everybody is a story," Yaconelli said. "It brings us all home to our own heart."

Yaconelli has lived in Ashland for six years. He was trained as a spiritual director in the Christian tradition, where he developed his ability to listen compassionately and create a safe space for people to feel comfortable talking.

"The Hearth is about making that space happen," he said.

The Hearth held its second monthly storytelling event on April 15. The first, held in March at the Caldera Tap House, was so crowded the event needed to be moved to the Ashland Community Center for the April gathering.

Each event benefits a local cause. The March event, "Love Stories," netted more than 200 pounds of food for the Ashland Food Bank.

Storytellers included Sam Alvord, Zoe Abel, Jeff Golden, Eve Smyth, Bobbi Kidder and Frank Rogers.

The April event raised more than $500 for Ashland Community Hospital Hospice and WinterSpring, a grief support center that helps people deal with bereavement issues. The stories were all about "Letting Go."

Storytellers for "Letting Go" included Whitcomb, Fred Grewe, Candace Doyle, Alison Asher and Joseph Friedman.

Grewe, the chaplain at Ashland Community Hospital for the past two years, is also in charge of the local hospice program. He was preparing to tell the story of the death of a close friend.

"It's what got me into chaplaincy," Grewe said. "As humans, we're all trying to find how our stories fit into the big story. It's a very human thing."

But not all the stories were about grief and bereavement.

"You don't always let go of things you love, sometimes you let go of things you hate," said Joseph Friedman, who told about how he finally let go of the need to smoke cigarettes.

The story, comic and startling in turns, included a two-week solo hike through the Sierras in the 1970s, a strange bearded man who popped up in the middle of nowhere, a hallucinogenic drug trip and some confused but easy-going teenage boy campers. By the end, Friedman had a vision showing him that by lighting a cigarette while sitting by a campfire, he was looking 30 years into the future with his finger on the trigger of a gun pointed at his own head 30 years in the past.

"I knew lighting that cigarette was like pulling the trigger," Friedman said. "I haven't had a cigarette since 1976."

Yaconelli works hard between events, collecting storytellers and preparing for the next Hearth.

"The purpose is to create community and to call people out of hiding," he said. "It's almost therapeutic. No one who tells a story doesn't feel like they've benefitted."

The next Hearth is set for 7 to 10 p.m. Thursday, May 13, at the Ashland Community Center, 59 Winburn Way. The topic is "Into the Wild: Wilderness Tales."

For information, or to tell a story of your own, contact Yaconelli at thehearthashland@gmail.com. See thehearthstorytelling.wordpress.com for more information on the series.

Reach reporter and editor Myles Murphy at 482-3456 ext. 222 or mmurphy@dailytidings.com.