Child soldier's visit spotlights power of storytelling

Monday, February 16, 2009 | 5:49 p.m. CST; updated 8:03 p.m. CST, Monday, February 16, 2009

COLUMBIA — Storyteller Laura Simms adopted Ishmael Beah, a former child soldier from Sierra Leone, Africa, after they met at a UN conference on children affected by war more than a decade ago. Beah, now a best-selling author, and his mother will bring their story to Columbia as a part of the program "Telling Stories, Changing Lives" this week.

Beah's story is "about how art affects life and how finding his voice helped him reclaim some of what was taken from him. That's remarkable for anyone," said Milbre Burch, Columbia storyteller and founder of Kind Crone Productions, which launched the effort to bring Beah to the community.

The aim of "Telling Stories, Changing Lives" is to show how storytelling can be used as a vehicle for healing those who have experienced the traumas of war and violence. Beah and Simms will discuss their experiences and how telling stories helped Beah heal from the horrors he lived through.

"We have children in this city who grow up experiencing violence that comes into their lives without their asking," Burch said. "They need to hear the story of a boy who lost everything, came through hell and found a way to come out intact on the other side."

Beah, 28, wrote "A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier," about his journey from his bleak life as a child soldier with the Sierra Leone government army, taking drugs, watching "Rambo" movies and performing his duties in the killing fields. Beah was eventually released and rehabilitated at a UNICEF center.

"The struggles of any human in a wartime situation are important to share," said Kim Coke, director of student development at Columbia College, the lead institution on the grant that is bringing Beah and Simms to Columbia. More than a dozen groups are supporting the visit.

Coke and Laura Ford-Brown, who teaches speech and communication at the college, spearheaded the effort, which is holding several of the events associated with "Telling Stories, Changing Lives." The events, a majority of which are free and public, start Wednesday and include lectures, workshops, lunches and a storytelling concert by Simms. "Telling Stories, Changing Lives" will also serve as the National Storytelling Network South Central Regional Conference.

If You Go

The public can attend eight events related to "Telling Stories, Changing Lives."

Wednesday: Public lecture by Ishmael Beah and Laura Simms, 7 p.m., Jesse Auditorium, MU; free for students, $8 others.

Thursday: Public reception for Beah and Simms, 5:30 p.m., Reynolds Journalism Institute, MU; free. Panel discussion, "Narrative as a Pathway to Reconciliation," 7:30 p.m., Waters Auditorium, MU, free.

Friday: "Storytelling and Compassionate Action, a Conversation with Laura Simms," 7 p.m., Launer Auditorium, Columbia College, 901 Rogers St.; $5.

Saturday: Laura Simms Storytelling Workshop, 9:30 a.m., Columbia Public Library; free. "Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars" film screening and community roundtable, 1:30 p.m., Ragtag Cinema; $6. "Telling Stories, Changing Lives" with Beah, 5:30 p.m., Activity and Recreation Center, 1701 W. Ash St.; free. "Making Peace, Heart Uprising," a storytelling concert for adults by Simms, 7:30 p.m., Launer Auditorium; $10.

Ongoing: "Global Journalist: The Face of Refuge in Darfur, Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda," a photo exhibit by Gina Bramucci, is on display from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily through March 7 in the rotunda of Lee Hills Hall, Eighth and Elm streets.

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"We need to know that we can help one another by opening our hearts to one another's stories," Burch said. "('Telling Stories, Changing Lives')  is an opportunity to shine a light on applied storytelling that the community might not know."

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