Circles Within Circles; Volunteer Storytelling Programs

by Gene and Peggy Helmick-Richardson.

Why do we present volunteer storytelling programs at a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center and women’s shelter? That answer is both easy and complex; circles, circles within circles, circles above, circles below, circles overlapping.

We try to do our storytelling programs in circles as much as possible. This cannot always be done; if not, we strive to have an atmosphere of a circle. Just the physical energy of a circle is sufficient reason for this, but it goes much deeper.

Stories we have heard or shared in other circles have fed us as well as others. In turn, we sit in the circles of The Trinity Center and Genesis Women’s Shelter and share stories in hope that the residents there will be spiritually and emotionally fed. But these stories do not go in a straight line and they do not stop.

When we return the next month, new residents often request a certain story they were told about. Sometimes they already know the story by heart because the earlier residents told it to the new folks.

Residents often share stories with us after our program: stories that helped them work harder at achieving sobriety or finding a safe haven; stories of abuse, at their own hands or those of others; stories of bad choices and difficult solutions.

Then there are those tales residents have shared about how the stories told that evening made a difference in their life. One man came to us after a storytelling program at The Trinity Center and said he had given up and was planning on checking himself out that night. When he heard the storytelling was also that evening, he decided to wait until after we were finished. He had heard about the program from others and thought it might be a pleasant diversion. He thanked us and let us know that because of the stories shared, he had decided to stay in the program.

Our first reaction was to want to ask him which story it was that made that kind of impression on him. We didn’t ask though because it really didn’t matter. Any story may have the potential for transformative magic.

Each month, we see stories impacting different people in a multitude of ways. We are confident that some stories will always touch our listeners. Then there are others that create reactions that take us by surprise. Because of this, we try to let the stories speak for themselves. What this sometimes means is a story comes out very differently than expected or that a very unexpected story comes out of us. When we don’t allow ourselves to get in the way of these stories, the result is always incredibly positive.

It is so important to allow the energy within a circle to keep moving. For us, this means accepting the thanks and gratitude of our listeners, taking the time to listen to their stories and allowing ourselves to feel good about being a part of all of this. Our willingness to accept their thanks allows them to give something back to us. Listening to their stories not only empowers them in their own storytelling and recovery, it may also provide us with new insight, as well as a new story. And when we feel good about the program, we are renewed in our resolve to continue storytelling. We often tell audiences that storytelling is our ‘soul means of support.’ We explain that we have day jobs, but storytelling supports our souls.

For our programs at The Trinity Center, we set up a shrine near the center of the circle. The shrine itself is setup in a circular pattern. We do this for a number of reasons. It allows the residents, many of whom are not too long out of detox, a moment to visually focus on the items and settle into the space. It provides us an opportunity to explain the sacredness of storytelling and how it connects all of us.

Sadly, the shrine is not used at the women’s shelter for several reasons. Because the women here have only recently escaped their dangerous home environment and may have significant levels of discomfort with men, Peggy does the storytelling program for them while Gene tells in a different room to the children. The counselors here have been hesitant to set up a shrine for the women’s program because of their emotional vulnerability and fear levels. Part of this is tied into the fact that we have only been telling there for about three years. Also, the turnover in counselors is such that by the time we build up a level of trust with them, they have moved on and we are working once again with a new counselor.

The energy of each group we tell to can sometimes be breathtakingly different. One month, a group can be quite reserved. The next month’s group may be raucous and rowdy. Usually we are greeted with appreciation and anticipation, although we occasionally encounter skepticism and even hostility from some. For treatment center residents, some of this can be explained by the level of detox the group is at or the primary addictions being dealt with at that time.

Several counselors have shared with us that following our programs, they find the residents are easier to work with. The stories have a calming effect that often creates improved community harmony. Also, certain stories provide opportunities for counselors to tap into issues that previously had not been allowed exploration.

A significant source of satisfaction for us with this work is in the reminders of how the circles continue long after we have left and the residents have moved on. Occasionally we meet someone who had heard us months or even years before. Hearing their stories of success since that time renews our determination to keep these circles always moving.

Originally appeared in the Spring 2003 issue of the HSA newsletter.

Dallas tandem tellers, Gene and Peggy Helmick- Richardson, perform as Twice Upon a rime Storytellers. In addition to The Trinity Center and The Genesis Women’s Shelter, they have shared their programs at a Texas Department of Corrections substance abuse facility, hospital, schools, libraries, museums, festivals and conferences.

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