by Sheila Harris
Often a year and a day is the length of time of a hero’s journey, and so it was for me. I returned home from STF 2016 with a renewed commitment to provide an accessible, music/storytelling event for adults with special needs. As the parent of an adult child with disabilities, I have so often endured disappointment and disrespect in response to my efforts to have an enjoyable outing with my son. My solitary effort to combat ignorance and indifference was wearing me out. I needed to find a new way to effect the change I wanted to see happen. Armed with a new tool from the workshop “Our Work in a Changing World,” I was enthusiastic about applying the phases of the hero’s journey to planning my next community project. With faith in story, I stepped outside the old box, crushed it with one firm stomp, and stood up tall like a hero.
The first phase in the template of the hero’s journey is the call. My experience in accessibility advocacy had always involved raising awareness and educating with the idea of integrating the different into the typical. Now, I asked, why not reverse this? People with disabilities should not have to always be the ones who have to fit themselves in. Why not have a community event suited to their needs and desires? These adults have been neglected in our communities.
They are our neighbors and we do not know them.
For phase #2, preparation, I reviewed my years of experience and my skills as a special educator and as a storyteller with special populations. I had organized other events before. I had a familiarity with the agencies providing services in our area. I am also endowed with the persistence of a mother.
Soon obstacles became apparent to me; Phase #3, setting out. I could not do all work the alone. I needed musicians and singers. I needed a handicap accessible venue. Selling this idea would be a challenge. I did not want to have to re-invent the wheel by trying to win people over. I could easily become overwhelmed by my personal connection. To re-direct my thinking more positively, I began to meditate, sat back and relaxed, pictured myself at this event. How did the space feel? How was the room arranged? I saw a guitar and banjo, felt a song lift my heart. I felt the warmth of conversation, soft and familiar. What I envisioned was a COFFEE HOUSE!
To find the helpers, phase #4, I reached out to someone I knew in the non-profit that has been supporting our rural food bank for over 30 years with coffee house concerts. She said, “At my age not much excites me anymore, but I am excited about this idea.” So, she brought it up to the committee that just happened to be meeting that night. The mission of the Foothills Rural Community Ministry (FRCM) is to “ help those in the community who are less fortunate.” They had been looking for a new community project. The timing was exquisite, synchronous, perfect! They got it!
Everything flowed together from there in creating our vision, phase #5. I used the hero’s journey template again to organize our notes, ideas, and questions. I spent a month writing and revising a letter to send out to the agencies introducing our group and our project; hoping to generate interest and helpful feedback to verify the need I felt. I spent a few minutes one day a week for several months making calls, mailing and sending emails in order to line up contact people in each agency who would email our invitation out to all their residences. The FRCM decided this should be a pilot program event with no advertising, so I was under pressure to recruit our audience. FRCM also set the date which happened to coincide with STF 2017, requiring a sacrifice on my part.
We had prepared for anything and agreed to roll with whatever. On a sunny Sunday afternoon in early April 2017 we had our first Special Coffee House. As the guests arrived we broke the ice with ice cream! The FRCM’s experienced volunteers and musicians were all involved in personal welcoming. Daytime meant the room would be light and airy, not posing a problem for those who are challenged by darkness. Sensory stimulation was reduced – no sound amplification or flashing/spot lights. Large tables were arranged with gingham runners and tea lights. One could move around easily and yet there was the intimate, homey feel of a coffee house. Our guests’ optional donations for admission and refreshments went to support the food bank. All was warm, welcoming, relaxed. In the interaction of the singing, storytelling, dancing, and laughter, shyness, self-consciousness melted away. More than 30 people shared joy that afternoon, each expressing it in their own way.
In phase #6, coming home, we ask ourselves how will we be changed? Everyone took a risk that day – helpers, musicians, and guests. All exclaimed they wanted to do it again. They had found something they want more of. I learned how to seek and find ways to bring stories and songs to special people in my rural community in a way that benefits all, even the food bank. The goodness comes full circle, as does a story. I did not do this alone, and I am grateful for my companions along the way. Following the template of the phases of the hero’s journey helped to lay a solid foundation for this event to become a part of the FRCM’s annual schedule of coffee houses. For providing the first step of this journey, thank you STF 2016.
Sheila Harris is a New York based storyteller who tells historical and original tales. She also teaches a workshop called , CHASING SKELETONS. This workshop is designed for those who want to learn how to flesh out a skeleton story of one of their own ancestors.