Thanks to a Folk and Traditional Arts Apprenticeship grant from the Kentucky Arts Council, I started on a journey in July that has taken me to worlds I had never before visited. It’s a journey through storytelling. Although I’ve just traveled a short way down the first trail, I’m amazed at what I’ve learned. I’m enjoying this expedition with my friend and guide, Appalachian storyteller Pam Holcomb. She has shown me the way to places I never would have visited on my own. Worlds of fables, imagination and creativity are all ready to come into your life if you open your mind. With Pam’s guidance, I have learned that anything is possible through stories. Teaching youth the truth about difficult topics, talking to an audience about complicated issues, or getting the attention of those you never thought would listen to you; they’re all possible through storytelling.
Pam Holcomb and Gwenda Adkins during their apprenticeship site visit
A spur off our main trail has taken me into an unlit land I never realized was so amazing and misunderstood. Sometimes dark places appear evil and forbidden, but if you conquer your fears and enter the passage, there may be a bright spot waiting for someone to find it. This life event has opened my eyes and my world to a condition that approximately 10,000 babies born in the United States each year will develop. Its name is cerebral palsy (CP), a group of disorders that can involve brain and nervous system functions such as movement, learning, hearing, seeing and thinking.
Why did Pam lead me to CP? It wasn’t just the condition that took us to this place, it was the person. She was born in January 1972 and weighed just a bit more than two pounds. She tried to come before Christmas, but the doctors talked her into waiting a bit. Even so, she was born two months early. She, like Pam, is a native of Harlan County Kentucky. Her name is Kristy “Bee” Barrett, one of Pam’s very dear high school students.
Kristy’s mom felt her daughter’s growth and development wasn’t on time with other babies. The doctors kept saying, “Its because she was a preemie. She just has to catch up.” Kristy didn’t catch up; she was diagnosed with CP at 18 months old. She and her family also began an amazing life journey. Although she didn’t “catch up” with age developmental expectations, Kristy has flown past most people her age when it comes to lifelong achievements.
Kristy is now 41 years old. She and Pam are very close friends. Kristy refers to her CP as her gift from God. She says,”I am the way He wanted me to be.”
Pam tells a story titled “Three Steps.” Through emotional words and expressions, Pam explains how excited Kristy was when she took three steps without the assistance of a walker, wheelchair or other device. She couldn’t wait to tell Pam and all her other friends at school. Just three steps, that’s all she has ever taken. But the races she has won are countless. Those races—along with Kristy’s attitude toward life, people and her gift—encouraged Pam to ask me to join her in telling Kristy’s story as the culminating project for my storytelling apprenticeship.
So this unknown land called cerebral palsy is more than something to pass through. Its a place to pause and reflect, a place to learn and share, a place to listen and grow. I have learned about CP, but my short time with Kristy really taught me about life and how to live it to the fullest. From her, I learned you have to conquer your fears and take chances. Kristy has done both. She can show the world that a person is not defined by a condition, the person defines the condition. Kristy has chosen “Bee Still, Embrace My Gift” as the title for her life story.
I have written four short stories about Kristy and have a couple of others in my mind. I fear there are way too many great things to tell than 90 minutes will allow. What I hope is that Pam and I can wrap our arms around Kristy’s many accomplishments and relay them to the public as an inspirational production that makes her proud and celebrates her life and her gift.
The CP spur is only one pause in my journey, it certainly didn’t stop it. On February 23, I joined my mentor and other Kentucky storytellers for a program in Harlan, Ky. Harlan County extension agents Jeremy and Theresa understand the importance of storytelling, so they host events for the public and invite storytellers to participate. I helped with the Storytelling in the Mountains” spring event and also told a story for the first time to a public audience. Learning by doing is wonderful, but learning by watching Kentucky’s great storytellers perform…priceless.
Only half of my storytelling apprenticeship journey remains. Where will it take me…I dare not imagine because my guide is creative and doesn’t mind to enter untamed territory. Perhaps you and I will bump into each other on the trail. Thank you, Kentucky Arts Council, for the opportunity to blaze a new life trail.
Gwenda Huff -Johnson, storyteller
Learn more about he rjourney on her blog “Gwenda’s Storytelling Trail”