Connection Through Story


Voices of Petersburg is a three-day digital storytelling workshop for clients of Petersburg Mental Health Services (PMHS) in Petersburg, Alaska. 

Participants choose an experience they want to share and, with the guidance of mental health counselors, write a script for a digital story to give voice to their struggles and triumphs.

In the production process they work with several media specialists to sort through family photos and myriad digital images to help convey their story visually. They record their voice as narration and choose accompanying music to help express the emotional current of the piece.

The process of writing, choosing supportive media assets, and bringing the story to the screen provides a platform for healing unique to the mental health therapies. The production process allows a workable distance from the subject while still engaging in what is often painful territory. 

The workshop culminates with a celebratory screening of the digital stories for family and friends. Participants express a sense of relief and catharsis after sharing their digital story. PMHS Counselors continue to utilize the stories during therapy, well beyond the close of the workshop.

The healing power of digital storytelling gently ushers participants’ painful dark corners toward the bright light of release.
— Kathy Craven


It's all about connection

This is the philosophy of the Petersburg Mental Health Services (PMHS) team and the core value of our project.

In this small, rural community it can be difficult to find a place to belong if you are considered “different.” The sense of isolation can be profound.

PMHS has limited staff and resources to serve all the people living on the island. They must find ways for clients to develop support outside of their office. Digital storytelling helps foster such connection. You can see it when the participants share rides with each other, provide supportive feedback, and even begin to meet for coffee after the workshop ends. Some of these individuals have never felt accepted by others or been a part of a group. Their stories are a bridge to one another.

Our project has significant value in it’s final product, as well as in the creation process. We bring together a diverse group of clients receiving services from the PMHS treatment center - people who struggle with suicidal tendencies, schizophrenia, trauma, depression, and substance abuse. 

There is one commonality between every person in the room - a deep sense of disconnection from others or from themselves. This workshop is a key part of their treatment. There is great healing power to being truly seen and heard, even for five minutes.

During the celebratory screening of the digital stories there is a warmth and an air of expectancy reminiscent of the holidays. Many participants bring important people in their lives, which helps promote feelings of acceptance to the larger community in a safe, yet palpable way.

The Voices of Petersburg project also provides fertile ground to plant and harvest moments of great authenticity. The act of digital storytelling requires the narrator to articulate important passages of their life that inevitably reveal healing truths. The unearthing of these universal themes - life, death, love, hate, joy, and despair - offers countless opportunities to reflect and connect.

Fittingly, the Voices of Petersburg project would not be possible if not for the personal connections we share as facilitators and friends, as well as the connections we’ve fostered within the local community that help provide the majority of resources we need to offer this workshop.

Watching vulnerable people go from mumbling under a hooded sweatshirt to standing in front of television cameras and legislators speaking out about how the Alaska mental health system should be changed is a high point of my career.
— Susie Ohmer


Several past workshop participants have given consent to share their stories with a wider audience. These stories are not entertainment, but rather an authentic articulation and processing of a difficult life event. To honor the therapeutic nature, you must request access to view their work.


2015 Workshop Reflection



Colleagues Turned Friends

Due to the sensitive nature of therapeutic digital storytelling, it is imperative that facilitators are trusted professionals who are empathetic toward workshop participants and the mental health issues shared.

Our project was born nearly a decade ago and has been carried for years on the dedication and expertise of Dr. Jason Ohler and Susie Ohmer, Executive Director of Petersburg Mental Health Services. In recent years Jason has been mentoring two tag-alongs - Kathy Craven and Emily Wray. 


Dr. Jason Ohler

"It is profoundly gratifying to help people heal using the language of new media."

Jason is a world-renown author, presenter, and educator. He has worked both online and in classrooms for over a quarter century helping students develop the new literacies they need to succeed in the digital age.

More About Jason

Travels 2,600 Miles
From Prescott Valley, Arizona
to Petersburg, Alaska


Kathy Craven, MA

" I'm deeply honored to guide and learn from such courageous storytellers."

Kathy is a documentary filmmaker and the Program Director of the Media Communications Bachelor of Science Degree at Full Sail University.

More About Kathy

Travels 3,946 Miles
From Orlando, Florida
to Petersburg, Alaska


Kate Clodfelter

Head Production Intern

Kate is a Media Communications graduate from Full Sail University and a storyteller at heart. She is pursuing a career in radio journalism.

More About Kate


Susie Ohmer, LCSW

"There is great healing power to being truly seen and heard."

Susie is the Executive Director of Petersburg Mental Health Services. Her clinical interests include complex trauma, biofeedback, crisis negotiation, and the challeneges of providing mental health services in a remote community.

More About Susie

3rd Generation Petersburgian



Emily Wray, MS

"The annual pilgrimage to Petersburg is a recalibration for the soul."

Emily is faculty member at Full Sail University. Her professional interests lie at the intersection of technology, education, and design.

More About Emily

Travels 3,946 Miles
From Orlando, Florida
to Petersburg, Alaska


The Voices of Petersburg workshop also relies heavily on the clinical expertise of the PMHS Counselors and the donation of facilities, equipment, and tech support from the Petersburg School District.