Claudia O’Brien’s journey in sharing international culture with other Solon residents began innocently enough.
She is asked by her friend Jill Frankel, the city’s director of senior services, to help with a lecture series for seniors. Ms. O’Brien, who previously volunteered with the Federal Church Seniors’ Group, said she would do whatever was needed.
“Jill asked me to find speakers for a series about people from different cultures,” said Ms. O’Brien. “I said to myself, Well, I’ll see what I can do, and see who I can find.”
Little did she know that her work finding speakers for the “The World in Your Backyard” educational series at the Great Solon Center would turn out to be a big part of her and her husband, Sean’s.
Ms. O’Brien has been coordinating the monthly programs since 2016. She has been exposed to different countries, different religions, different foods, and different beliefs. She said that the local seniors who attended the lecture series had expanded their knowledge of the global community through these programmes.
Ms. O’Brien helped guide the speakers to put together professional yet entertaining programs, complete with PowerPoint presentations, handouts, and even food from the country being shown. Speakers share information about their countries of origin, their landscapes, their customs, and their people.
Along the way, Mrs. O’Brien’s family was often treated to food from the people she met, encouraged to share their cultures and then make friends with them.
“I get a lot of great food from these shows,” said Mr. O’Brien, laughing. “But we just learned a lot. And we had such interesting experiences. We shared Christmas dinner with Christians, Jews and Muslims for a year, and we all enjoyed dinner together.”
Ms. O’Brien has also found an upside in her work with international speaker programmes. “The people I meet through this work — they enrich my life,” she said. They enrich the lives of seniors at the Senior Citizens Center. Working with people who are not from the United States has given me a new appreciation for the freedoms we enjoy here.”
Ms. O’Brien told the story of a recent speaker from Iran, Samira, whom she met and immediately felt a connection with. Samira was a lawyer in Iran and was attending Cleveland Law School so she could practice in Ohio.
Mrs. O’Brien acted in a mentoring role for Samira, introducing her to others in the legal field. But it was Samira’s mother Mehrnaz who also benefited from her daughter’s program about her homeland. Mehrnaz made all Iranian food for 75 people and wore traditional Iranian dress to show more of their culture to the group.
“When the program ended, she told me her mom enjoyed coming to the graduation center so much that she wanted to come back and maybe volunteer there,” said Ms. O’Brien.
Another adventure O’Briens enjoyed involved working with Akli, who was originally from Ethiopia. Akli presented a program on Ethiopia to senior citizens which sparked a friendship with his hosts.
“We made great friends with Akley and learned so much about his culture that we recently went to an Ethiopian restaurant with him and his wife to enjoy more of their delicious traditional Ethiopian food,” said Ms. O’Brien. Ackley reminds us all the time that he doesn’t take for granted the life he has in the States — the chances. It always reminds us to appreciate what we have here.”
To find speakers for her programs, Ms. O’Brien connects with international organizations such as the International Community Council – Global Intercultural Network (ICC-WIN), a network of international organizations throughout Northeast Ohio. Since she has worked with the international community in Cleveland for over six years now, she also finds speakers by networking with her former presenters.
Ms. O’Brien said that sometimes potential speakers hesitate, fear that their English may not be perfect, or worry that their programs will not be interesting enough for older people.
“But I always say to them, Bring yourselves in. Make it your own show. We all have traditions, and we all want to learn.”
Ms. O’Brien said that one of the positive speakers they often tell her is that they learn more about their cultures. She explained, “Some speakers will tell me that as a result of researching their culture, they often talk to their parents or family members and learn things about their family history that they didn’t know before.”
Ms O’Brien added that she keeps in contact with her former spokespeople, often texting or emailing them. She said she feels a connection to them and wants to continue their newly formed friendships.
Mr. O’Brien said his wife is always looking for new speakers, always “recruiting”.
“Wherever we go, Claudia thinks about where someone is from, and what they might be able to share in their life,” he said.
The O’Brien family, who own O’Brien Construction Inc., have learned. In Solon, their two sons learned the importance of learning about other cultures. Ms. O’Brien said she learned about meeting people from diverse backgrounds from her parents, who fostered American Field Service (AFS) exchange students in their home when she was in her teens.
“We love to travel, and we love learning about other countries and customs,” said Mrs. O’Brien. “And we’ve passed that love on to our children.”
The O’Briens recently traveled to Spain and Portugal. Next on their list is a 2023 trip to Romania, Serbia and Belgium.
The O’Briens plan their trips not to see tourist sites but to meet people.
Just like in the programs Ms. O’Brien curates, learning about international culture is really about getting to know its people, something O’Brien, in turn, has shared with hundreds of seniors in their hometown of Solon.