Sixteen-year-old Quonesha bends over a notebook, writing the story of her day:
Once I made it to Creative Writing Class, I turned into “Super Power Writing Woman” … I just kept writing and writing and writing. It felt so great!!!
Nearby is Lori Slager ’02, super-power facilitator, aka executive director of the Grand Rapids Creative Youth Center (CYC). For three years, the CYC was a portmanteau nonprofit, bringing writing classes to schools and community centers around the city. Its office was a cramped corner at the back of The Sparrows Coffee Tea and Newsstand, where owner Slager also worked on Sparrows’ bookkeeping and product orders.
But thanks to a substantial grant from the Kellogg Foundation (.pdf) and the generosity of a lot of locals, the CYC celebrated the new year in a home of its own—two blocks from The Sparrows and, appropriately enough, a former bookstore.
Books are once again for sale there—writing collections authored by Quonesha and other CYC students. The latest, released at the CYC’s home opening, is titled Does This Book Make My Brain Look Big?
The answer is yes.
“Most of the kids didn’t know they had it in them to write these pieces,” Slager said. “When we start with them, they’re very hesitant, because they’re afraid they’re going to do it wrong. So first we encourage them just to get it all out, to get them excited about writing. The correcting comes later. Once we have a collection, we publish it and hold a book release party. The kids sit on a panel and read from their work, then they answer questions from the audience and sign books. Their confidence goes through the roof!”
Books aren’t the only publication outlet for these young writers. Thirty budding journalists belong to the CYC’s two press clubs. For them, Slager arranges field trips and interviews; the stories the young reporters then write are published on The Rapidian, a local citizen journalism website. They’ve interviewed writers, business owners, actors, the mayor—he said they “asked challenging questions”—even country music star Trace Adkins.
“We’ve had journalists come in and teach the kids how to ask good questions,” Slager said. “Their writing isn’t well organized yet, but they come up with impressive questions. It’s fun to watch them become more inquisitive.”
Besides inquisitiveness, Slager’s short list for her CYC kids includes a strong sense of identity, excitement about learning, creative problem-solving skills, grit and perseverance.
“These are amazing, smart, interesting children,” she said. “I hate using the phrase ‘at risk,’ because they are completely capable. But maybe they’re not in the best school or they have parents who have to work long hours. We want to give them opportunities all kids should have.”
Doing that takes lots of time—time teaching, yes, but also driving kids on field trips, taking them out for their birthdays, meeting their families. For three years Slager and her 30-plus volunteers donated all that time. Now the same grant that has given the CYC a home pays for a program director and for Slager to be executive director.
A serious administrative title doesn’t mean she’ll quit teaching, though.
“It’s too much fun,” she said. “The kids are hilarious, and I can be silly with them. I laugh and have fun the entire time. It’s uplifting—that’s the word for it.”