CHIL Story Slam

On a recent Thursday morning, young people perched on sofas in the lounge at Covenant House Illinois (CHIL), just as expectant as any audience at a Moth event in a downtown Chicago bookstore. They wait patiently while the storyteller takes his place on a high stool in the center of the room. The theme for this day’s Story Slam: Role models. 

“My role model is my mother,” Daniel (not his real name), 22, begins.  “She was a school teacher and raised nine kids—a bunch of little demons. We were evicted from houses, and things were rough. But she never gave up and she never slowed down .”

Next up, Joseph (not his real name), 23, also chooses his mother as his role model. “It made me strong to see my mom overcome everything. On Take-Your-Child-To-Work day, I saw a kid throw a book bag at her (she was a teacher’s assistant). She just smiled and said, ‘God bless.’ She died in 2015, and I was left homeless .”

Before the session winds up, Amy Sings In The Timber, CHIL’s director of development and communications and the creative force behind the CHIL Story Slam, offers feedback. “Telling stories is about making connections with people, finding commonalities,” she tells the youth. “You really took us there, to your life, through your stories.” 

Participation at the biweekly Story Slam is voluntary, and youth can choose to share on a given theme or to be an “active listener” of others’ tales. “We may have only two or three storytellers on a given day, or we may have so many that we run out of time before everyone has a chance to share,” Amy says. 

Based on The Moth Story Slam, the CHIL version has three rules: Stick to the theme, which is selected by the youth, all of whom are experiencing homelessness; do not exalt self-harm, drug use, or violent episodes in your story; and share your story within the five-minute time allotment to give everyone who wants to participate the opportunity to do so.

Confidence, Empathy, Connection, Family

CHIL is Covenant House’s newest U.S. site. It opened as a drop-in center in February 2018, and in that time has served more than 340 youth experiencing homelessness in more than 8,000 total visits. CHIL offers the young people case management, group and individual counseling, medical care, napping rooms, and help acquiring jobs and transitional housing, among other services. 

In the next phase of development, CHIL will provide living quarters and the around-the-clock care for which Covenant House is best known. In the meantime, case managers and youth advisors respond to the young people’s needs while also building a sense of community with them through creative activities such as Story Slam. And it’s working. 

“I usually participate in it,” Daniel says. “It kind of helps me get back on my square—and not fall off. And I feel that Story Slam is a good thing for a lot of people. It helps you to realize so much about life and what people are going through.”

Joseph has participated only a few times, but his experience has been just as meaningful. “Even if you’re just sitting there, you can learn a lot about what somebody else is experiencing. You can understand a person better, even if you don’t talk to them every day. You listen and go, ‘Oh, yeah, now I know what he’s going through. Now I see where his head is at.’”

Amy says the original idea of the CHIL story slam was to create a way for the development staff, who are located in a distant part of the building, to have meaningful interactions with the youth in the drop-in center.  She worked with case managers and other program staff to think through a format that would accomplish this and much more.

“It also is a way to help the young people feel confident in telling their story and provides them with the kinds of skills they’re going to need in a job interview or an educational setting,” she says. 

As Joseph and Daniel note, Story Slam has helped them become more aware of and patient with the other youth at the center, empathize with their situation, and grow in their connectedness as a community.

“We don’t all come from the same life style, but we are all living the same life style right now,” Daniel says. “When you step into the Covenant House, it’s like a family, una familia.”

Lauren Cartlidge