Most of us think of board meetings—if we think about them at all—as obligatory or even tedious. And it would probably be a stretch to refer to even the most successful of board meetings as fun. But at Ballad Health’s new Unicoi County Hospital, the executive team has the help of a half dozen middle schoolers who have committed to take the “bore” out of board meetings.
These sixth- to eighth-graders, who all attend Unicoi County Middle School in East Tennessee, are working with the hospital and the staff of the International Storytelling Center (ISC) to help make sure the new facility is community friendly, and especially kid friendly.
Since the hospital has only been open since last October, the Junior Board (as this group of youngsters is known) has been involved in establishing the culture of the facility from the ground up.
The Junior Board was the brainchild of ISC’s president, Kiran Singh Sirah, who created his first junior board when he worked with Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow, Scotland. “I’ve been traveling to different parts of the world since I was six years old,” Sirah says. “If there’s anything I’ve learned in my travels, it’s that kids want to contribute and make a difference.”
Since 2018, Sirah’s team at ISC has been working with Ballad Health to embed storytelling in the culture at Unicoi County Hospital. More generally, ISC has partnered with regional health care facilities for decades on projects such as Stories for the Soul, which beamed a dedicated storytelling channel into patients’ hospital rooms, and especially in children’s wards. The goal at the Unicoi facility is to take the relationship a step further, building storytelling into the fabric of interactions at the hospital itself, so the focus is less on performance and more on using stories to help patients and their families feel comfortable. In addition to providing premium patient care, Unicoi County Hospital hopes to find ways to help engage and educate the community that surrounds it.
ISC will work with the building’s designers, staff, and administrators to ensure that the state-of-the-art hospital fosters real listening and community engagement. The Junior Board is an important part of that initiative.
The idea came up in an early brainstorming session with the Ballad Health team. It was important to hospital leaders to make the facility seem like a welcoming place to young people from the day it opened its doors. The hospital strives to be a place where people can meet, make new friends, and create positive memories around the facility specifically, and about health care more broadly. Public health outreach efforts will promote health lifestyles, from which a stronger, healthier community naturally flows.
At Unicoi County Hospital, the Junior Board first convened in January. Sirah was onsite to share a story about his journey to East Tennessee and his role at the International Storytelling Center. He encouraged the young board to use storytelling to imagine the people who had lived on the land before them and to discuss different ways that stories can be passed on to the generations of the future.
Hospitals can be intimidating places, especially for kids. Wearing special t-shirts for team unity, the Junior Board immediately rose to the challenge set before them, talking over their roles and duties as advisory board members. A teacher, support staff, and several representatives from Ballad Health were also on hand for the kickoff meeting, which was held inside the hospital’s “grownup” board room.
One of the first projects the board has taken on is the creation of a storied time capsule that will contain objects and stories collected from hospital staff, patients, and visitors. Once it has been prepared, the capsule will be sealed for 25 years. Many of the young board members are considering careers in the medical profession, and expressed the hope that they may even be working in such a role on site by the time the capsule is opened.
In addition to capsule planning, the Junior Board’s first day included a mini press conference and a pizza lunch.
Ultimately, the hope is that members of Junior Board will serve as the hospital’s ambassadors in the community, spreading a kind of word-of-mouth enthusiasm that is much more organic and authentic than advertising. Sirah hopes the kids will also spread the word about storytelling as an entertaining folk art as well as a practical community-building tool, collecting stories from their family members and community elders to share with future generations.
Throughout the year, the kids will continue to provide valuable feedback to hospital administrators, who are striving to embed the value of listening in all the hospital’s activities and functions. Storytelling—and, crucially, story listening—will be powerful tools that help administrators better respond to its patients and to its community.
Over the next year, the hospital’s first Junior Board will meet regularly to discuss a variety of topics surrounding health care and intergenerational dialogue. It will serve as a model in the region for other facilities and nonprofits that would benefit from having fresh eyes—and fresh ideas—to move their organizations forward.
Stories in Motion is a regular feature in which ISC examines the fresh ways we see the power of storytelling at work in the world.