May 12, 2016
Today marks the first day on site as facilitator of a therapeutic creative writing program I designed for a near-by TJJD (Texas Juvenile Justice Department) correctional facility. Getting to today has been decades in the making.
In October 2015 I had a proposal accepted into the TJJD Strengthening Youth and Families Conference in San Marcos, Texas. There I presented a workshop on Compassion Fatigue and Self-Care. Personally, I was in the midst of piecing together a plan for life-work-income-creative outlet-thriving sustainability and balance. I had been brainstorming ways to incorporate both my love of creative expression and my professional work as a mental health professional. I was also looking for ways to generate income doing work that fosters my thriving. At the SYF conference I meet with or reconnected with several professionals who got my wheels turning around creating and implementing a therapeutic creative writing program for youth.
After the conference I drew up a proposal and through a connection with fellow artist and community youth worker, Kiera Collins, I had a meeting with the director and supervisor at Klaras Center for Families. They signed me on as a paid contract worker and I began the weekly 90-minute writing circle in April 2016.
Around the same time I pitched a proposal to a contact I had met at the conference to provide a similar weekly writing circle program to adolescent boys in a near-by TJJD correctional facility. They accepted my proposal and the process of getting cleared to volunteer began.
Months of paperwork, background checks, orientation, and scheduling led me to today: my first circle with five youth.
After a brief introduction we began our time together discussing what I like to call Group Agreements or the standards we have for the space we create together. The kids shared their ideas including things like: maintaining a peaceful and quiet space; listening to one another without interrupting; looking at a person when they speak; not laughing at someone when they share/read; respect each other’s body boundaries and keep hands to self; be polite; encourage each other with positive words. I was proud of them—those are exactly the things I would have asked of them. Then I asked each of them what they would be willing to do to ensure that kind of a safe and respectful space. Each of them shared and over the next 90 minutes maintained their agreements (save a few interruptions of kids excited to share their writings).
We started off with a warm up exercise from To Write Love on Her Arms called Fears vs. Dreams. I told asked the kids that if they are to participate in the group, they always write at least 5 lines on whatever prompts we have. They can of course always write more, but they all agreed they would strive for at least 5 lines. I invited them to share their fears, then dreams. Collectively we decided to give snaps after each person shared to honor the fact that they got up and read in front of others. I encouraged them to take turns talking about what things they could relate to or connect with about what each one had written about. Part of the objective of this program is to teach youth how to give positive and constructive feedback on work other’s share/perform. They all were able to connect to the content of at least one other writer—many of them connected to everyone.
After our initial warm up we passed out journals and one writer offered a prompt idea and I had two others fish a prompt out of a bag in which I had about 75 words, phrases, or quotes. They had the option of writing about one, two, or all three prompts, or writing about something that was already on their minds. I gave about 10-12 minutes for writing. All the writers were engaged, some working out rhythms and rhymes quietly to themselves, rehearsing their work as they wrote. There are no limits to the type of genre—rap, poetry, hip hop, freestyle, prose, narrative, fiction—whatever their style is what they can work with. At the end of the time I let them know it’s OK if they didn’t finish, they’d have other times when they could come back to those pieces.
I opened up the sharing time and they were all ready volunteers—I never require anyone to share and was excited they were all willing to read. Many of them stood up to share their work. We all snapped for each other and again I encouraged the writers to give feedback what they appreciated, what they connected with, what they liked about someone else’s work. Our prompts were:
Life – Regret – Love
They got pretty real and deep for day one. I was so impressed by their candor. I’ve worked with youth for over 20 years and feel like I have a pretty good sense for when kids are saying what they think I want to hear vs. what’s really on their minds. Each of them shared their work and their pieces reflected their unique styles, interests, and issues weighing on their minds. They all found something positive to share about another’s writing and all of them were able to connect with things at least one other person shared. I took it as a great vital sign when they began talking about next week’s session.
As I was packing up my things at the end of our time together, one of the writer’s said,
“Miss, I know it’s kind of weird, but I’m in a better mood after writing today.”
I smiled (inside choking back spontaneous joy-tears). That right there, is exactly why I do this. What a privilege to do this work!
The unit I will be working with for the next few months is one of the hardest units in terms of mental health needs and supervision of the youth is about a one-to-one ratio. One of the staff asked why I would chose to work with these kids. I told him because I love drawing out the voices of others and listening to their stories. I love working with youth. I love writing. I love those moments when people see themselves, truly, on the page and heal, grow, learn, or discover new things in the process. This is sacred work and I’m honored to participate in it.
I’ll share more about the way back story in the days and weeks to come. I hope you’ll journey with me!