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Listening to Children at the Well

By Ruth Broyde Sharone


In biblical times the well was at the epicenter of existence, supplying local tribal populations, nomads, and their herds with the precious elixir of life. The well also served as a central meeting place for people to socialize, share their stories, and exchange information often critical for their survival.

Although in some parts of the world today the well remains crucial for survival, most of us no longer have to roll the heavy stone off the top of the well to quench our thirst. We just turn on a faucet. And for socializing and learning what’s new, we have a store full of gadgets and software for connecting.

Even with the latest technological wonders, though, our lives still swirl around our human need to share our stories and hear the stories of others. And perhaps that is the most fundamental force animating the ever-expanding interfaith movement.

Telling Your Stories at School

Gert Johnson and Adah Hetko

Gert Johnson and Adah Hetko

Gert Johnson, teacher of religion, discovered how powerful storytelling is in the classroom. In retirement she became a public storyteller. In 2002, Gert invited Paula Weiss and her eleven-year old daughter, Adah Hetko, to attend a meeting of the Interfaith Story Circle of the Tri-City Area in Albany, New York. Adah agreed to tag along. The only child in the room, she listened in fascination to the adults’ stories. At the end of the evening, the coordinator asked if any one else had a story to share. The normally shy Adah raised her hand.

“I was enthralled and I was swept away,” Adah, now 21, recalls. “I listened to the adults telling their personal stories, and I wanted to do what they were doing.” She suddenly found herself on the stage sharing a “Jewish trickster fairy tale” she had learned in Hebrew school.

It was a deciding moment for her. Gert Johnson noticed the light in the young girl’s eyes and asked if Adah would like to tell a story at “Winter Lights,” the upcoming story circle performance. She accepted and continued attending storytelling events with her mother, not minding at first that she was the only child present. Gert became her mentor, a relationship that continues to this day.

In 2002, post 9/11, with the fear of terrorism still palpable, Gert felt it important to go to schools and work with children. She heard that a local Islamic School was being harassed and arranged to go into a sixth grade class to tell stories to the children and encourage them to tell their own stories. The children were enthralled.

Gert, Paula, and several others from their story circle conferred and realized the timewas perfect to start an interfaith storytelling group for children. In 2005 they developed and submitted a proposal for a youth program, and the following year they won the National Storytelling Network’s Brimstone Award.

An Interfaith Program with Disciplined Skillsets

Thus was born Children at the Well, a unique interfaith program to nurture and coach youth storytellers for peace and understanding. The program is in its eighth year and is still thriving. Cherie Karo Schwartz, a Jewish storyteller from a long line of storytellers, inspired the name. She described storytelling as “drawing water from the well to collect the treasures from your past.”

Paula alighted on the image of the well, and it became the symbol of the new project, which became her “magnificent obsession,” she confesses. She began to work on it full time, supported by her understanding husband, Joe Hetko, a music teacher, songwriter, and guitarist.

Since then the group of children has included Christians, Jews (from Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform backgrounds), Muslims, a Baha’i’, a Quaker, Indian Orthodox, Hindus from Guyana as well as Pakistan and India, Unitarians, and the occasional atheist. They started with 12 kids, swelled to 20, and then stabilized at 16, all between the ages of 11 and 17.

To get into the group kids must submit a letter explaining why they are interested and state in writing their willingness and commitment to attend coaching sessions. Those selected meet with storytelling coaches from January to April or May for two and a half hours each Sunday afternoon.

“The kids wanted to stay with us year after year,” Paula recalls, many of them through high school. “It is so inspiring to see children grow and develop as they look for stories that represent themselves. We don’t have Christian kids telling Hindu stories, and it is not dialogue,” she emphasizes. They share stories of about five to eight minutes from their own holy scriptures, as well as from folk tales and personal anecdotes.

A minor snafu occurred one year while planning a final public performance at a local church. Two young Sudanese Muslim sisters, recently arrived in America, were in the group. For religious reasons, their father opposed their performing in a church. But the organizers had planned for everyone to have a meal together afterwards at the church social hall nearby. Paula resolved the dilemma by holding half the program in the social hall. Thus two Sudanese sisters were able to share their stories. “No one made any fuss about it,” Paula said, “and fortunately it never became an issue.”

What Happens when Children Learn to Tell Their Faith Stories?

Paula Weiss and her daughter Adah

Paula Weiss and her daughter Adah

The interfaith harvest from this project has been encouraging. Adah recently graduated from Oberlin College where, as a result of her storytelling experience, she became instrumental in setting up interfaith student activities on her campus. She points out that unlike other art forms, “storytelling encourages people to become good listeners.”

At graduation, Adah received the President John Henry Barrows Medal for Interfaith Leadership, a commencement award established by the Interfaith Faculty and Staff Council to honor a graduating student who has demonstrated outstanding and exemplary leadership in promoting religious and philosophical pluralism and interfaith engagement. Adah was also awarded the Tanenbaum Fellowship at Vassar College where this fall she’ll be working in the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life helping to organize interfaith events and trouble shooting if any sensitive interfaith issues arise on campus.

Another storytelling alum, John Lyden, from a Christian background, is a film student and is currently completing a film about Children at the Well, partially financed by a Kickstarter campaign Paula orchestrated to help him get funding.

Ben Russell

Ben Russell

Ben Russell, 21, a Jewish “graduate” of Children at the Well, changed his plans for a career as a result of being in the group. Originally he hoped to study technology, but he switched to a double major in Comparative Religion and Philosophy instead. It was the other children’s stories that stimulated his curiosity, he underscores, stories that sent him rushing home to his computer to learn more about their religions. In his own words, he “devoured” the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Koran, and the Bhagavad Gita – all before he was 17. He now serves as an assistant coach for the Children at the Well and has just finished reading The Book of Mormon, he reports.

How did the program promote interfaith harmony? “Well, you can’t be terrified of someone when you’re laughing,” Ben replies.

Aditya Agashe, 17, a Hindu born in India, was first exposed to the magic ofstorytelling during visits with his grandmother in India. According to family history, he would refuse to go to bed until she told him a minimum of two stories from Hindu folklore every night.

Aditya Agashe

Aditya Agashe

Aditya, who will be studying bioengineering at Cornell this fall, was 13 when he first joined the group. Growing up in America, he attended the same school from kindergarten to eighth grade; the student-body was fairly homogenous. Outside of school, Aditya socialized primarily with others kids from India. He had few opportunities to mix and mingle with children from other cultures or faiths. Children at the Well changed all that.

From the stories they choose, participants learn about the core values of the culture, faith, and religion they represent. “While ostensibly these cultures andreligions appear to be different from one another,” Aditya explains, “in reality the core values are the same from faith to faith and never change. We all believe in the same principal moral concepts. The only difference is the medium through which these values are depicted.”

Hear about Children at the Well from its participants in this eight-minute video. A ‘kit’ is available from Children of the Well to assist those who wish to create similar storytelling programs in their own community.

Two of the best benefits mentioned by both participants and founders are (1) the self-confidence the teens develop and (2) their cognitive ability to understand the structure of what makes a good story and how to mine it for its best details. Sometimes they are taught to look at the story from the perspective of a minor character. Other times they concentrate on one scene in great detail to discover more about the environment and setting of the story and to get into the skin of each of the characters. “A firm grasp of my story gave me confidence to improvise and throw in humor,” Aditya emphasizes, “and the ability to think on my toes is the skill that is the most fun to use. As long as you can sense the energy and interests of the audience, you can change the story to fit them – to maximize its overall impact!”

Through coaching from Mary Murphy, one of the Well’sstory coaches, Aditya, the once timid boy, learned to master and present stories at events such as the National Youth Storytelling Showcase, where recently he was selected as a National Winner.

The founders of Children at the Well have discovered that storytelling is an ideal framework to engender young people who feel comfortable with religious and cultural diversity and comfortable in telling their own faith journeys. Storytellers around the world – young and old alike – have discovered that as long as we have stories to share, the living well will never run dry.