When I was little, my Granddad used to tell me stories about an adventurous rabbit called William. William always got himself into lots of scrapes. Sometimes he would steal carrots from the garden, or get lost in the woods at night time, then the moon would come out and he'd find his way home. I'm pretty sure that we heard slightly altered versions of the same "William stories" for years, but I never tired of hearing them. When I think back to times with my grandparents, those memories of snuggling under the covers at bedtime, listening to a story are like cosy cuddles. My grandparents are no longer with me, but they left me a gift- of imagination and connection, and of worlds where naughty rabbits always find their way home.
Now as an adult, I know that stories don't always end happily, nor are they always so neatly resolved. Neither do they have to be imaginary. One of the joys in life is to listen to people. People are fascinating. When you spend time with any person, they always have a story to tell. Stories of adventures, travels, relationships, pain, resilience and love. I once took one of my youngest foster children to visit elderly people in a care home near to us. My child was a baby and she was about to be adopted, so there only remained a precious few weeks with her. One elderly gentleman was particularly taken with her. He was frail and walked with a stick. Every time we visited, he would make his way to the communal lounge, sit down and hold out his arms for the baby. She would sit and gaze at him and he would make funny faces at her. I wondered about him, what kind of life he had had. Turned out he had been in the parachute regiment in the army and he recounted the sheer exuberance of jumping out of the planes. He looked at me, winked and suggested we do one together. I raised an eyebrow and pointed out his walking stick.
It was such a privilege though to visit that care home. One lady decided that she would knit the baby a scarf and hat. Later, when it came to transitions week and the time of preparing the baby to move to her new adoptive family, I bought a memory box covered in pictures of butterflies. In it I placed items of the baby's life with us so far - the clothes she came to us in, her favourite teddy, presents from our other foster children, cards that she had received, photos and that precious knitted scarf and hat. To each item I wrote a short story - a narrative of its significance, of the people connected to it or the memory. I wrote about the care home and the stories of the residents. I wrote about how she helped them, even in their frailty, how she encouraged people who hadn't been out of their rooms for a long time to falteringly make their way to the communal lounge and extend aged and wrinkled hands to welcome a smiling, accepting and beautiful child. The joy that she had bought them and the joy that she was to us. We saw her only once after she left us, and we haven't seen her again. But the picture of her wearing the hat and scarf remains on our wall and our stories will be forever entwined.
Telling stories, whether they are imaginary, or passed down through generations, or recollections of times gone by, help us connect with one another, convey messages, preserve memories and make sense of an often confusing and chaotic world. They can provide a narrative when one is missing.
I've been a foster carer for nine years and we have welcomed many children to our home, from that baby (our youngest child we've cared for), to toddlers, children and teenagers. At the point of arrival, we are strangers. We know very little about them - and they know nothing of us. We may start our acquaintance through a one-off remark, a point of interest, a shared love of the same food or football team. We notice the child's favourite colour or toy. We start with something, no matter how small, and build from there. And the first chapter in our collective story begins. But of course, the child had a story before they even stepped into our home.
Whilst being so much more than what is written on the chronologies we receive from their social worker; we know that the child's story includes significant trauma and loss. This type of complex trauma", multiple layers of traumatic events and experiences at the hands of those that should be caring for them and often sustained over many years, negatively impact a child's "Internal Working Model" - the way they see themselves, others and the world around them. The world seems dangerous and confusing and the child often feels high levels of shame and mistrust in others. It can also result in something called "fragmented memories". This is described by Bessel van der Kolk in his book "The Body Keeps the Score". Confronted with horror or "inescapable shock", the brain's frontal lobe shuts down, including the region necessary for putting feelings into words, and the emotional brain takes over, expressing its altered state through changes in emotional arousal and body physiology. This heightened arousal disconnects other areas of the brain necessary for storage and integration of information. As a result, the "traumatic experiences are organised not as coherent logical narratives but in fragmented sensory and emotional traces: images, sounds and physical sensations" (p176). So, we can see that the child that comes into our family, with a significant trauma history, has a distorted view of themselves and of a world that doesn't make sense, and traumatic memories that are embedded within their very self as broken, fragmented pieces.
In 2012, The Fostering Network Published a report called "Building Relationships through Storytelling". The authors Steve Killick and Maria Boffey note that stories not only strengthen a child's language and imagination but also "their ability to tell their own story and make themselves heard" (pIV). Stories can help a child understand themselves better and gain insight into their own thoughts and feelings as well as those of other people, Stories can help children become empathic, build relationships and develop emotional literacy and social skills. Furthermore, stories are able to deal with issues that affect children - illness, bullying, peer pressure, difficulties in families, even trauma, loss and abuse.
For several years I have been involved with a charity called Home for Good. Home for Good raises awareness of fostering and adoption, equips the church to care for vulnerable children, supports foster and adoptive families and provides a voice within politics and the media. Four years ago we set up Home for Good: Leicester, a local branch of the national charity to respond to the needs of children within our area. Our team of 8 volunteers now run events such as our annual Christmas party, projects such as our care packages for newly approved foster carers and regular awareness raising campaigns. It is a privilege to speak to others about care for the vulnerable, to walk alongside those making their first enquiries into fostering and adoption and to see children make huge strides in their recovery from childhood trauma.
In 2019 we worked with a storyteller, Johnny Steinegger. At the time, Johnny was undertaking some research on how storytelling can help care-experienced children build friendships. Over that summer he delivered workshops to a group of about 8 children. Johnny has since published his dissertation on his findings (to request a copy, email [email protected]). As an observer to this work, I noticed one little girl, who spent the first few days sitting by herself towards the back of the room, gradually inch forwards so that, by the end of the week, she was actively participating in the story-telling process.
Buoyed by seeing the positive impact storytelling had on this small group of children, we decided to run another club the following summer, only for the pan. demic to change our plans. Instead, Johnny created a series of YouTube videos for us - a webinar for parents and carers followed by four themed workshops for children (on imagination, friendship, feelings and communication). These are all free to access.
This year we were able to resume face to face work and again we ran a summer storytelling club for local children in foster or adoptive families. Whilst our 2019 workshops were held inside a church hall, this year we decided to utilise the great outdoors and booked space at our local arboretum. This gave us use of a classroom and an outdoor storytelling circle. It was really important to us that we created a nurturing, safe environment whilst allowing the children to explore and be creative. It quickly became clear that we needed to create a "den" or safe place in the classroom for a child who was struggling to be with the others in the group. Most mornings, this child would sit on the floor of his den, surrounded by teddies, but we could tell he was interested in what was going on. By the end of the week, he was directing his own stories. Another child hardly spoke when she first arrived. Within a few days, she was able to share her ideas with one of the adults in the group and it was such a joy to see her gain this confidence.
Johnny told me that his motivation to run our storytelling clubs was born out of a deep desire to enable children who are lonely or feel excluded to be brought into a community where they feel they have friends, support and are loved. This is what he says about stories: "As we tell our own stories, they help us to understand and make sense of the world we live in. As we listen to the stories of others, we can begin to empathise and understand them. As we finally create stories together we can build friendships and not just interact on a level of understanding but actually create and shape relationships".
Johnny has written a blog about his time delivering our most recent storytelling club: www.thestorystein.com/post/professorscrocodiles-bears-nurses-and-cats. For me, this account, beautifully recounted by Johnny, stands out the most:
"Everyone! Pay attention- this is really important!" Announced the boy, C, in the corner decisively. All eyes in the room turned towards the boy and listened with interest to his narrative. "Last night the family of Teddy Bears were all out for a midnight walk in the forest. They all had a really good time and were just heading back from their walk when suddenly two of the baby bears disappeared! The mummy and daddy bears called out and searched and searched last night but they couldn't find them anywhere... So when we go out later into the forest can everyone keep an eye out for them and bring them straight to me if they find anything?" As one group we all nodded in agreement and headed off into the nearby arboretum to begin our search for the bears. C waddled behind us somewhat struggling to contain the four other bears in the family in his small arms. The children searched in bushes, up trees and finally the cries of delight emerged from behind a bush proclaiming the discovery of one of the missing bears. Immediately the children rushed up to C and squashed the teddy bear into the receiving arms of the other four. C continued his even more precarious balancing act down the path whilst the others rushed off again. Again, shouts of victory drifted to our ears as the children came pouring out of the blackberry bush and triumphantly shoved the final bear in between the head of one and the leg of another. C's anxious eyebrows transformed into a delighted smile, "The bear family are back together again, thanks for all your help everyone!" In that moment it seemed that all our struggles in the week, all of our creativity and searching had culminated into the wonderful completion of this story that everyone had worked together to solve and to resolve. From then on C's connection in the group strengthened and he became much more than the boy in the corner.
From my early experiences of hearing about William the naughty rabbit, to the stories told by residents at the care home, our foster baby's box of memories, the stories of the children that have come into our home, and more widely the children that have taken part in our storytelling clubs, we can see over and over again that storytelling has a wondrous ability to bring joy and connection, build relationships, share memories, fill in missing gaps and help heal pain.