Storytelling Center program aims to help empower local girls through storytelling

Jonathan Roberts • Feb 9, 2020 at 7:08 PM

Heidi Reynolds wasn’t sure what to expect when she decided to take part in the International Storytelling Center’s “SHEroes Journey Day Camp” — but by the time she completed the two-week program, it had made its mark.

“When I started, I was kind of confused what it was going to be about,” the 9-year-old Reynolds said. “I would say it definitely helps us (gain confidence) and (show us) that we don’t have to rely on other people to do things — it helped us get more confident and be like: We can do this. I think it really helped us.”

The program, an offshoot of the ISC’s Stories for Change initiative, combines elements from various mediums including fairly and folk tales to help the girls explore their identities and identify problems they see in the world. The program’s coordinator, Rachel Stiltner, says the it was born out of desire to give girls a safe place to discuss their own stories and experiences, particularly those with adverse childhood experiences. 

“It’s definitely female empowerment from the ground up,” Stiltner said. “It’s fun to design and implement, even though you’re dealing with serious subject matter. It pans out to be a really empowering experience.” 

One of the cornerstones of the program is the exploration of fractured fairytales, or stories that have classic characters making new, empowering decisions, and exploring problematic portrayals of women in children’s movies. At the end of the program, the girls got an opportunity to put what they learned into action by creating and sharing their own stories on stage. 

“After they did all this empowerment work and all this character dissection, the girls got to write a story of their own,” Stiltner said. “Ultimately, how that translates, is that they start to be able to use that same process in day-to-day life and that’s something I think will last a lifetime.” 

Michelle Treece, an ISC board member who took part in the program, said that empowering girls from a young age is “one of the number one things we’re going to have to have happen in this day,” something she feels the program succeeds in doing.  

“I think this program teaches them how to use their power,” Treece said. “These kids have always had a voice, but I don’t know if the realize that voice is a power voice, and how to use it.”

Reynolds was one of those who wasn’t sure if they could use their voice. Her father, Matt Reynolds, recalled her being afraid of having to share a story in front of people when she started the program, but by the time she took the stage it was clear confidence wasn’t an issue for her — at least not anymore. 

In her story, Reynolds fled her home planet in an attempt to gain independence, before her mother sent an entire galaxy after her, eventually finding her child on Earth. In her story, she has to defend her new planet, while trying to retain her own agency. In her own words, her story was “about independence and protecting other people.” 

“The more she does, the happier I am,” Matt Reynolds said. “To see her get up and do her story ... it was a really good feeling.” 

And though it’s still a fairly new program, it’s starting to garner some attention. On Jan. 30, the program was one of three to take home a $5,000 grant as part of East Tennessee State University’s “ETSU Elevates” initiative, an achievement Stiltner called “wild.” 

“Everything we do, all our choices and all of our experiences shape our story,” Stiltner said. “Some of it’s positive, some of it’s negative, but it’s about being able to take this story, tell it and being able to build resilience and make better choices in your future based on your past.” 

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