Serving Through Healing Stories

by Peggy Helmick-Richardson

I’ll never forget the time Gene and I got a standing ovation from 150 men in a state prison in East Texas—before we started our program. Were they that thrilled at the idea of hearing storytellers? I doubt it. My hunch is those men were just grateful someone had come to do something nice for them with no strings attached. And appreciation leads to listening.

Maintaining that no-strings-attached aura is vital in therapeutic storytelling settings. Our years of telling at a domestic violence shelter, drug and alcohol treatment center, and county, state, and federal prisons have taught us the value of being both in the moment and in the story for the sole purpose of serving our listeners. We still occasionally get tangled up in the strings, but we’re learning to cut them away as soon as we start tripping. It is primarily a matter of leaving our personal issues at the door.

Some matters to consider when choosing stories to tell in therapeutic or prison settings:

  • There is a hunger for fairy tales in these settings. A significant number of both male and female audiences were genuinely story-deprived as children and the desire for these tales spring from a primal need.
  • These environments often mean too many people in far too-close quarters. Storytelling programs should most likely wind down to peaceful states. Stories that incorporate skills such as cooperation and peaceful problem solving serve not only the clients but the staff as well, which also improves your chances for getting invited back to tell.
  • Stories from a variety of cultures and religions will draw in those listeners from minority groups who often feel even more isolated in these environments.
  • Select stories appropriate for the issues being addressed. Although the Japanese story of the Tiger’s Whisker offers a great lesson on patience and persistence, it involves appeasing an angry and violent husband. I don’t recommend it for any place where you may have domestic violence issues. Instead, try the Ethiopian version, The Lion’s Whisker, where winning the affection of a petulant step-son is the goal.
  • No matter how carefully stories are chosen, unexpected triggers may seemingly come from nowhere. Staff members should always be at hand. If you suddenly discover there is no staff member nearby, have one sent for immediately. Unless you are a trained therapist and have the consent of the staff, the only job you should be doing is storytelling!

Don’t expect to walk in off the street and be greeted with open arms as a storyteller. Most of these venues require strict background checks, training programs and certification classes, and contracts between the facility and the service provider.

After you do this a few times it starts to get easier. And those problems you leave at the door? Don’t worry, I assure you they will still be waiting for you when you get out. But a successful storytelling program in locations such as these often have the added benefit of helping the teller develop new ways to deal with their own baggage as well.

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