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The Importance of Stories: How One’s Client’s Life Can AffectAnother’s

January 19, 2021

When “Letitia” agreed to publicly share her struggle to get a driver’s license in 2012, she may not have realized how her story would sow seeds for the future – or how close to home those seeds would sprout.

That year, Catholic Charities was part of a push to ease the first-time license requirements for adults over 18 in Maryland. At the time, state law didn’t distinguish between teenagers and adults, expecting both to wait nine months between getting a learner’s permit and applying for a license, and to spend 60 hours practicing with a parent, mentor or instructor.

The requirements placed significant hurdles in front of adults like Letitia, a resident of Sarah’s House, the Catholic Charities program that provides immediate and supportive housing for families experiencing homelessness in Anne Arundel County. She had work and family commitments and could not afford to pay an instructor to complete the five dozen practice hours.

Letitia’s story was particularly interesting because she and her son were getting their driver’s licenses at the same time. She agreed to testify before a Maryland Senate committee to explain that the requirements might help teenagers, but posed real challenges for her. She needed a license to expand her employment options as she sought to support her family. That was not necessarily the aim of her 17-year-old son.

“Our clients’ stories help lawmakers understand the real impacts of the bills they are considering,” said Catholic Charities Director of Advocacy Regan Vaughan. “It’s so important to put a face behind the policy issue.”

Understanding the impact of the law, the legislature changed it, requiring less of adults seeking their first driver’s license. But that wasn’t the end of Letitia’s story.

Passing it on

Two years later, Vaughan was visiting with another guest at Sarah’s House, Ashley Johnson, who was preparing for an interview with NPR on a related issue, the challenges facing working families. As they talked about what she wanted to say, Johnson mentioned how happy she was to have recently earned her driver’s license. The process had been surprisingly easy, she said, especially because her aunt had faced far more challenges when getting hers not long before.

It might have been an off-hand comment to most, but Vaughan understood how much work had supported this accomplishment. Shortly before Johnson shared her own story on NPR, Vaughan told her how Letitia and other residents of Sarah’s House had paved the way for that part of her journey.

“I didn’t even bring up the topic of the drivers license bill, but it gave me the opportunity to show her how, by sharing her story, she’d be making it easier for the Sarah’s House guests that came behind her,” Vaughan said.

Empowering experience

In addition to helping others, sharing a personal story to advance a cause can be empowering, according to research.

“Advocacy and social action… [can] have positive effects on the lives of those who advocate,” wrote Adam Schneider, a clinical instructor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, who has worked with Catholic Charities staff in the past. “Drawing on individual strengths, advocacy and social action can provide meaning and purpose, build support systems and positive social connections, and enhance communication and interpersonal skills.”

A case manager at Sarah’s House later told Vaughan that Johnson “killed a job interview” the following week because it wasn’t “half as scary” as talking with the national media about her life.

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