Joined by her team and community in Clay County, Kentucky, Vanda Rice co-leads Monkey Dumplins, a highly successful Story Bridge theater group. Now in its fifth year, this group has catalyzed amazing changes in this Appalachia community and beyond. Recently, a local jail approached Vanda and asked if she would bring Story Bridge to the female inmates there. Vanda said yes. Today, Vanda shares with us what happened when Story Bridge went to jail, and why it was one of the most moving experiences she has had. Please read along.
The day began as any typical Thursday but there was a feeling of fall in the air and my heart rate was a little more rapid than usual. This was the day we would introduce Story Bridge to the female inmates at our local detention center. I had never done Story Bridge in this type of setting but something has always tugged at my heart to hear their stories.
Our Monkey Dumplins community theater group have been gathering stories for our upcoming performance “Thicker’n Water: If Walls Could Talk”. This will be stories of families and how they have survived in the mountains of Appalachia. We always want to give everyone a chance to share their stories, even the people in jail.
Our team of three had planned to meet a few minutes early to discuss our last-minute game plan. Little did we know the prisoners, lovingly referred to as “gals” for today would be arriving early also. No time for last minute preparation—The Game is On! The Jailor, who is the executive director of the facility and a supporter of Monkey Dumplins, knew us and trusted us to do a good thing. Sometimes living in a small town where everybody knows your name is not bad.
We had been given permission to use their conference room which in my perfect plan would be a space big enough for that beautiful circle we always begin with. In place of a large beautiful space we were assigned a small space with an oblong table and chairs occupying much of the room. As 10 gals entered they made no eye contact, heads down, no talking and all dressed in typical drab brown jail attire escorted by an employee of the jail. As one member of our Monkey Dumplins’ group also works at the jail she had the authority to replace the usual guard who seized the opportunity to take a break.
They all chose a seat around the table. Common sense took over and I decided we would make the best out of the space we had been assigned and would save the perfect circle til another day.
We began our time together by standing and shaking off the morning “sleepies”. With all of us standing, we began with the request to “Please tell me your name and if you were an animal what animal would you be.” A bit of reluctance to begin but one by one every gal in the room began to speak. This would set the tone for the remainder of our time together.
Their next request was to find a person you don’t know very well and ask them “Tell me something about yourself that most people may not know.” The goal was for them to begin communicating with each other. They were to share with the entire group the new information they had just learned about their person. As heads were lifted the level of participation increased with soft sounds of laughter all the while responding to each other I knew we were headed in the right direction.
After being seated, Safe Space and the importance thereof was introduced. They immediately began to offer ideas of what a Safe Space would be to them. One gal finished by saying “These qualities would make a perfect husband”—I agreed and we all chuckled. I wanted them to also know that a safe space didn’t have to be a room it could be you by holding true to these qualities to someone who needed a friend.
As time continued I introduced the Apples and Oranges concept which is all too familiar to anyone every participating in Story Bridge lead by Richard Geer and Qinghong Wei. After a wonderful conversation with Richard and Qinghong on the Tuesday before, we all agreed it best to begin with a prompt that would be lighthearted and easy. We began with the story prompt “Tell me about a time in your life when you felt lucky”. The gals began to share and listen to the stories of their peers. This was good. Next prompt was
“Tell me about a time with your family you will always remember”.
This time around the decision was made to switch to a story circle style giving each member a chance to share with the group. I felt it necessary for those present to hear from all the gals as our time with them was limited.
One by one they began to share their stories ending with smiles, laughter, tears and a new found feeling of compassion and understanding.
Our time together felt like we needed to wrap it up. We did a closing with taking the heaviness of some stories, tossing them into the center of the table, covering them with our hands and patting them down firmly. My inner voice told me to go one step farther by asking the gals to offer one word of description for how they felt about the Story Bridge experience. Here’s what they said,
“Comfortable, unloaded, humble, content, free, sad, loved, closeness, understood, sisterhood, enlightened connection, opened up, healing, therapeutic, and Someone to turn to”.
We all took a quiet moment to honor the stories that had been shared. I explained that a new connection had just happened. “I may not remember your name but I can guarantee I will remember each and every one of your stories.”
I will close with one story shared from a gal who looked to be 30 yrs old.
“When I was younger and my parents were still together, we were planning a family vacation but never could decide where we would go. Dad finally said “Let’s just get in the car and start driving…so we did. Our first stop was in Pigeon Forge, TN where they had all kinds of things to do like go carts, putt putt golf and all kinds of stuff. We stayed there a couple days then decided we would go on down to Atlanta. We spent the day and night there and then was on to the beach. I love the beach! We played in the ocean, built sandcastles, and just had the best time, Dad decided we would go on over to Alabama but we got lost and ended up in Louisiana.”
The group laughs. As she closed, tears filled her eyes and silence filled the space she looked at the gals and said,
“That was when life was perfect.”
God Bless You my Friends