At the same time that this project at the Royal Children’s Hospital was underway, Dulwich Centre Foundation was involved in a different project with young people entitled ‘Letters of kindness and knowledge: Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Aboriginal young people share their ‘life-saving tips’. This project involved young people with diverse experiences exchanging letters, knowledge and ideas about ways of getting through hard times.
As the project at the Royal Children’s Hospital continued, we came to realise how significant it was for young people with experiences of chronic health difficulties to exchange ideas and experiences with other young people who had also been through life-threatening situations, but in completely different contexts.
A key principle of collective narrative practice involves enabling groups to make contributions to one another through the rich sharing of insider knowledge. During this project it became apparent that when young people with chronic health issues became witnesses to the stories of young refugees, they embraced the opportunity to write a collective letter back in response. In these responses, which were crafted from the young people’s words by the facilitator, the participants shared far more about their unique knowledge of living with chronic health issues in the hope that this would be valuable to other young people. In doing so, knowledge was also shared between members of the group and a powerful sense of contribution and connectedness was fostered.
To read more about this correspondence between young people click here.
Here is an example of one of the letters:
To the group of young people in Adelaide.
Dear friends, thank you for sharing your stories and your tips with us. By the sounds of things you have been through some tough experiences and yet you are pretty positive about things. We understand what it’s like to be powerless in the face of things we can’t change. We’re meeting today at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne. We’re a group of young people who are like a ‘hospital family’. We’ll be leaving the care of this hospital some time in future (because we will be adults). Leaving here will be a bit like leaving our home or country.
It was amazing to hear your stories. Some parts were hard to listen to. Some of the things you have been through … to be walking down the street at a market and a bomb going off … it’s hard for us to imagine what that would have been like. We were really impressed that you are so open in discussing what you have been through.
We’ve all been through some pretty traumatic stuff too: sometimes we don’t feel comfortable saying it. Some of my problems I haven’t wanted to talk about … for people to know my bladder doesn’t work was horrible. Now I’ve just said it in front of this group … it’s no big deal. The way you share your stories shows that it’s okay to say it.
Your positivity really stood out to us too. It sounds like you think back on hard moments and turn them into motivation. Remembering the past as motivation is something we really respect. Some of us do that too. We must remember in order not to repeat the mistakes of the past.
We also really respect how you stay calm when facing fear and that you remember the circumstances where you learnt this from. If you’ve been hospitalised numerous times and if you have had to go through lots of different operations, this can bring some fear sometimes.
We have to find ways to stay calm in the face of this fear. To stay calm, I remember I am in the best place possible here. I remember that I’ve got the best care here. The staff are incredible. The way you trust your elders, we trust the medical staff – that they will make the best decisions for us.
You are working hard for a better future, to learn English and to catch up with education. We have to work really hard to be healthy in order to have a good future.
Some of us know that in the future our bodies may struggle. So we celebrate the little things when we have them. One of us celebrates walking. Another one of our group thinks that everything balances out eventually. It’s like ying and yang. The hard times and the good times.
And we have learnt to be patient. You have to have patience if you are a patient! The results of our hard work may not come instantaneously. It takes patience and hard work.
We also liked how you talked about smiles. You said ‘When you have seen as much as we have, then when you smile, you let it out, and your eyes sparkle’. We could relate to that. A smile can be comforting when you are unsure or in an unfamiliar place. A smile can open doors. If you are in hospital and about to get more blood taken, smiles are important. They can make you feel better. Smiles can be like a medicine. One of us has heard of research that has shown that if people smile at someone who is suicidal it can make all the difference. Smiles can save lives. Like you, we’ve also seen a lot of things. Sometimes we put on a brave smile. We liked how you reminded us about the importance of smiles.
We could also relate to how you don’t forget your best friends. Even if you are far away from them, you still remember them. This shows loyalty which we respect. We also remember our friends from hospital and friends who have passed away.
The words you chose when you spoke about ‘Seeking freedom from the past’, were significant to us too. For many of us with chronic health conditions it’s not that we are escaping from our past, we’re not running away from it, but it is about not being defined by our past. Your words about freedom from the past really resonated for one of us.
Your stories make us appreciate what we have here. We see violence in games not in real life. We laugh about it. But for some it’s reality, a daily threat. It was really good to hear your stories of how you have come out the other side. It sounds like you don’t take things for granted. It’s the same for us. When we’re in a good patch, like when there’s one less test we need to have, or when we can drop one medication, we really appreciate it. Your stories reminded us of the importance of appreciation and perspective.
Please don’t be afraid to tell your stories. We really appreciated hearing them.
Thank you for connecting with us.
From a Team of Courage
Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne
It was quite unexpected how significant these exchanges between diverse groups of young people became in this project. Time and again, it was in responding to the young refugees that the young people in the hospital gave voice to and evocatively described their own experiences of hardship and how they respond to these:
- ‘We understand what it’s like to be powerless in the face of things we can’t change’
- ‘We have to find ways to stay calm in the face of this fear.’
- ‘Some of us know that in the future our bodies may struggle. So we celebrate the little things when we have them. One of us celebrates walking.’
It was the honesty and generosity of the letters from the young refugees that seemed to make it possible for the young people at the hospital to find words to describe their experiences. Responding to other young people through the collective crafting of a letter provided a reason to speak.
This process involved young people speaking not only to the facilitators, but more significantly through the facilitators to other young people who have known great adversity. This practice of enabling people to ‘speak through us not just to us’ is one of the principles of collective narrative practice and it proved significant in these exchanges. Because this process involved collective documentation, the young people did not feel any sense of vulnerability or exposure in the process. Instead, they experienced a sense of connection with other young people who have been through hardship as well as a sense of connection to their own knowledge and skills in dealing with hard times.
What’s more, when the letters were read to the parents, this provided a window to experiences that family members were otherwise not likely to be included in. The parents often expressed a sense of pride in the ways the young people were reaching back and sharing knowledge with others who have experienced hardship.