Since the beginning of everything, storytelling has been the most effective and influential
means of human interaction that has evolved and has been refined throughout history. Before
the world turned into a global town, humans sailing across the oceans, marching through the
lands and summiting the mountain peaks would share their endeavours in narratives about all
the places they had discovered and all the people they met along the way.
No one knows when Mums started telling bedtime stories and singing lullabies to their
children introducing them to the wonders of imaginary lands that they could only see with
their eyes closed. Interestingly, all stories that have been passed from one generation to the
next, hold a key commonality, each, in one way or the other, have a moral lesson. Stories
have the astounding ability to stay with an individual for their whole lives.
Some of these stories can even lead to the transformation or healing of their listeners. One of
these stories is Gem of the First Water, and evidence shows that whether you are a school
kid, an emerging athlete or a prison inmate, this unique collection of stories will alter the way
you see yourself and so everything else.
The Gem Journey tells the story of an adolescent, who could be anyone of us. They begin in
dysfunction playing to the same script every day expecting different results. The journey
challenges them to look within and to become “unstuck” by mastering their own behaviour,
while facing an array of challenges and experiences in a mythical land aptly called The Land
of Confusion. The Gem Journey captures the imagination of young audiences without fail.
Young people walk out of each session with something new to ponder and hopefully put into
practice in their lives.
Without prescribing or patronising the listener, the Gem Journey offers a behavioural
blueprint for young people to emulate. The storytelling method creates a mindful learning
state ‘story mode’, where the listener’s attitude, biases and anger subside while they intently
listening to learn. Important life lessons are woven throughout the story allowing listeners to
process core themes with honest consideration without interference from typical defences of
denial, resentment and projection.
The benefits are apparent from the outset. The story does not only speak to adolescents, but it
has been responsible for causing shifts in adults and families too. Star tennis players Rubin
and Oliver Statham and their family went through one such transformation. Oliver
remembers that he “… was very lost as a young boy on who I was and what I wanted out of
life, I had difficulty making any friends and was often labelled as dumb in the “special
needs” classes or “fat”. I was a very sensitive kid who really desired to be liked and I often
sought attention in the wrong ways, which consequently affected my confidence and belief in
Ron Phillips came into their lives when they were struggling with the loss of their father and
brother. For Oliver, the Gem stories gave him the ability to see those “dark moments” in a
new light and use them as “a catalyst for change towards an incredibly blessed future.” “I
walked away with a blueprint of how I could navigate my life in a positive, effective manner
towards my goals and dreams,” he said. Oliver is currently completing an MD.
Author Ron Phillips lives in Auckland, New Zealand. He works for the Counties Manukau
Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services. He’s been a therapist for over 40 years with a
huge body of work at the coal face of mental health services. Both in California and New
Zealand since 1991. Ron’s goal, in the beginning, was to teach societies children how to live
their lives in a manner that prevents young people from becoming consumed by the system,
Ron and his wife, Mary, founded a group home in North California as an alternative to
institutional care. Creative-Alternatives Inc. Turlock California was founded by Ron and
Mary in 1976 and today continues to provide quality care for over 200 of society’s children.
Early on, Ron Phillips was convinced that traditional adult approaches to group therapy were
not effective with adolescents. The last thing adolescents want to do is to appear different, by
revealing themselves as weird or unusual; this fear causes many to avoid engagement with
mental health services and explains why data on effective group therapy for adolescents is
lacking. Ron Phillips had also realised how powerful peer influence was, as driver of change
in young people. It was during this time he conceived the theory and methodology that forms
the basis of Therapeutic Storytelling Intervention.
“Out of necessity”, Ron states, he developed one of the earliest therapeutic models of
storytelling for working with adolescents and families who are facing multiple challenges.
Ron proposes that Self is made up eight elements namely: our time, our mind, our heart-
emotions, our behaviour, our self-image, our decisions, our self-awareness and finally, our
‘dance of life’, and are common to everyone. The theory is based on the premise that each of
these elements of Self presents us with a dilemma that needs to be recognised and resolved.
Either we master each element by learning the rules that government it or ignore their
influence on our lives and suffer the consequences. As insights are gained and the models and
skills to manage each Element are applied, identity in that area becomes integrated and
consolidated. This theory forms the basis of therapeutic Storytelling Intervention.
Simply put, Ron states “The Gem Curriculum is a journey to understanding and knowing
yourself. When all your elements are in harmony and under your control you are being and
living your best self-life. You have achieved Identify and you are ready to live your life with
purpose, hope and fun”
Now, at the close of his public work, Ron believes he has created an intuitive and accessible
process for achieving identity in adolescents and indeed everyone/anyone who takes the
journey. For over 40 years Ron has run approximately 20,000 Gem Journey sessions to
thousands of listeners. The results of this huge body of work supports his assertion. However
Ron doesn’t claim the core themes of the Gem Journey to be new knowledge, but age-old
wisdom presented in an updated form.
Film Buff Productions Director Victor Carson completed a documentary, ‘The Storyteller’
about Ron’s work in 2021. The impetus was to tell the world about this program and express
some of the frustration about why the programme had not been more widely utilised in
Mental Health circles. The documentary screened mid-2021 and opened to overwhelming
response from the audience at the special screening. It was also released to the public in
second quarter of 2022, which garnered interest and fascination from individuals from all
walks of life.
The Gem Journey
The Gem Journey has two distinct parts. The story sets up the lesson while the post story
conversations deliver the solutions to the story’s lessons. The Gem journey curriculum takes
its audience through systematic lessons in healthy living providing multiple moments of
choice. As the Gem Journey story progresses each of the Elements that comprise Self are
presented, along with their dilemma and solution in the form of an easy to understand ‘model
or a rule’ which is discussed in the post story conversation.
The storytelling method allows listeners to mindfully consider the lesson and the opportunity,
in their own time, to arrive at personal, and quite elegant, solutions.
With personal application the curriculum easily translates into solutions for the challenges of
every day life. The journey lessons are opportunities to look within and to ‘become’.
Listeners find themselves changing by integrating the skills the ‘Boy’ enacts.
The curriculum experience is like looking in a mirror. The ultimate goal is to reach the Triple
Peaks, to be able to personally declare, as the boy declared, “This is who I am! I’m
responsible and in control of my body, time, and mind” certainly a goal each of us desires for
Rubin said that, for him, the Triple Peaks “represented three areas of my life, but it is
basically about values and morals and setting yourself up for success in every area of your
life, like work, family and personal, emotional decisions; and success in general and learning
to say 'No' to poor or instant decisions which can be harmful.”
The story captures the imagination of the audience and offers a blueprint for them to emulate.
It gives them a platform to live a successful life. Indeed, research has shown that Therapeutic
Storytelling Intervention has significantly better retention rates of 60 to 78% in comparison to
other such programs. In addition, research has supported improvement in parent-reported
depression, improvement in parent/child relationships, anxiety and attentional behavioural
difficulties. Participants report increased enjoyment of life and a marked reduction in
15-year-old Elizeh has been attending the Gem groups for a few months. She terms her
experience as the “best.” She says “I have a better and positive mind set… I feel happy and [I
am] happy with myself,” and she recommends her friends to give it a go because it’s worth it.
She walks into each group with hope that she is going to learn something.
Oliver fondly remembers “… attending a few of Ron’s classes where he read the Gem stories
to me. Although feeling lonely at the time, it enabled me to really reflect on the stories
(during his lunch breaks) and be honest with myself and why I was making my decisions. The
Gem stories helped me be honest with myself, love and respect myself, and take responsibility
for my actions. I’m convinced Ron’s stories planted many seeds for better decisions in my life
e.g., Perseverance, gratitude, love and hope.”
Ron engages with over 80 adolescents every week in South Auckland. The group format and
structure remains consistent. He starts animatedly narrating the story, emphasising the aspects
that are significant. He asks questions of his audience at critical junctures. After asking the
crucial questions (found in his Storytellers Guide) the group ends with Ron asking
participants what they will take home with them? (Post-group suggestions) Lastly he invites
them to ask him anything on their minds, this almost always leads to incredible discussions.
Remember, Ron tells them, the group doesn’t end now, this is actually is just beginning.
At the start of the very first group Ron gives the simple set of group rules-directions. Ron
tells them that he is going to take them on a journey. “I’m going to give each of you
something worth more than Gold….I know, I know I wouldn’t believe me either. However you
will not forget I made you this promise. You’ll have to wait and see if I’m honest or deluded.
Secondly, I want you to make yourself comfortable… however, when you are talking I won’t
be talking and when I’m talking… thirdly I ask lots of questions and if I ask you something
you are uncomfortable honestly answering for whatever reason all you need to do is pass. I
will never embarrass you. However it’s vital to be honest with yourself. Then I fire into the
journey.” I get my group process started in ten minutes.
Ron builds a vivid sketch with the story using his gestures and voice intonation. For Rubin,
“it creates a visual for how to focus your behaviours towards where you want to go in life.”
He is not frazzled by apparent, initial disinterest that some adolescents are so used to
expressing. Instead, he masterfully asks questions related to the story to bring their attention
back. The astounding observation is that they are almost always listening. For some
participants, the problem is that they are shy. The story is able to speak to them too. The
audience learns from listening to the story without being judged and feeling defensive about
their thoughts. Like music, stories can ‘emotionalise’ and personalise information, which
allows the insights to strike an emotional chord with the audience. The information
emotionalised, through the eidetic imagery of the stories, can also easily bypass the defences
of anger, blame and shame. Over the years Ron has observed listeners go through 3 phases,
they identify, then internalise the themes and finally redirect their behaviours based on their
new choices. And this redirection is not a result of “you should, man you better, if you
don’t…”, no it’s because the listener chooses to make better mental health choices.
At first Oliver was also “intimidated and shy”, said that, “within a few moments I was
completely immersed in the story. Ron has an exceptional ability to engage people in the
room with lots of interaction, critical reflection and incredible story telling ability.”
The 16-week, Gem Journey intervention features as a prominent part in the programme for
Year 9 and 10 students offered by The Rising Foundation (TRF), which aims to support
adolescents in their transition to adulthood. TRF General Manager, Alex Tarrant says, “Ron’s
Gem Journey intervention has become an integral part of our 5 year programme. Having
these insights imparted to our juniors, early in their relationship with us deeply impacts their
lives, they become grateful, responsible and enthusiastic young people. Also once our team
became familiar with the stories they can refer back to key events to further reinforce and
personalise the lessons they teach”.
Chris Stewart still lives by the lessons he learnt from participating in the groups some 15
years ago. He recently recounted his experiences to Ron, “I was reminiscing about my school
days back at Papakura High, and I can still remember your voice ''what are you thankful
for'’…I hope that all the kids that would benefit from your TSI groups find you, and learn the
valuable lessons that I remember.”
Ron Phillips is also running the groups at Counties Manukau Child and Adolescent Mental
The Gem Journey Kit is available for purchase for individuals, families and classrooms. The
accessibility and easy-to-follow nature of this therapeutic model is elegant in its simplicity.
The Gem Journey has been of benefit to thousands of individuals and families in California
and New Zealand and has proven its mettle. It has allowed these families to form unbreakable
bonds within and with each other, based on the foundation of values that bring out the best of
all that makes us human. The Gem curriculum has been thoroughly tested over decades in
widely varied clinical settings, schools, and clinics, camps, and prisons— at long last, these
amazing teaching tools are now available to the public in user friendly, learning kits.
“This is my life work, the curriculum is what it is, in print and ready. The acquisition of
Identify can now be taught”. Ron Phillips
Ron Phillips’s books regarding therapeutic storytelling intervention are available on Amazon
The Gem journey kits are only available from the website https://www.tsi.co.nz/store/.
The Rising Foundation: www.therisingfoundation.org.nz