Creative Space: How a GR Writing Center is Empowering Young Voices
If the old adage about not judging a book by its cover is to be trusted, magic must happen behind the unassuming storefront of the Grand Rapids Creative Youth Center.
For the kids enrolled in programming there, the cozy space does indeed unleash an enchantment of sorts – the ability to create and put voice to their wildest thoughts and ideas.
Nola DeGroft loves to read fantasy, counting The Hunger Games trilogy and Percy Jackson series as favorites. Up next on her reading list are J.R.R. Tolkien classics The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings series.
Along with reading fantastical stories, the Grand Rapids eight-year-old and soon-to-be 4th grader also enjoys writing them. She’s flexing her creative writing muscle this summer through a special urban legends workshop. She’s almost breathless as she describes the tale she’s developing about witches, clowns, vampires, ghost pirates, zombies and werewolves.
“She’s always been a storyteller, a weaver of tales,” said DeeAnn DeGroft, Nola’s mom.
Through the summer workshop and an Afterschool Adventure program she attended during the school year, the center has helped DeGroft develop her craft and zero in on something she’s passionate about. She says it also gives her a creative outlet beyond typical school assignments.
“I can express myself,” DeGroft said. “I don’t have to learn about a swimmer or a basketball player and just what my teacher tells me to.”
“It’s been really good for her,” her mom said.
Instilling Confidence through Creativity
Helping young people express themselves creatively is at the heart of what happens at the Creative Youth Center, located in southeast Grand Rapids at 413 Eastern Avenue.
The warm space has bursting bookshelves, plenty of comfy reading nooks, and an eclectic décor suited to flights of fancy and imagination.
The non-profit organization has been around since 2010, modeled loosely after 826 National, the creative writing and tutoring center founded by author Dave Eggers. What started as a volunteer-run group working out of schools and neighborhood organizations has bloomed to include full-time staff and dedicated space.
During the school year, after-school creative writing programs are offered for first-graders through high school students. The resulting work is published in an annual anthology and culminates in a celebration and reading at Wealthy Theatre. Once-a-month workshops have focused on everything from jokes, rap lyrics, and sports writing, all led by visiting writers in the community.
Programming is free and open to Grand Rapids Public Schools students, with a specific focus on serving kids from the surrounding neighborhood.
Program Manager Brianne Carpenter and Executive Director Kristin Brace explain that the center doesn’t intend to replace school curriculum, but rather enhance what students are learning, giving them new ways to confidently find their voice. Writing at the center is more relaxed, with students free to curl up in a chair, write with headphones on, or sprawl on their bellies.
“We’re able to offer students’ choice about what they want to write or how they want to write,” Brace said.
Creating Real Change
Working closely with students, Carpenter sees firsthand how much writing talent can develop over a year. She’s also had parents credit the center for sparking big changes in their children’s overall lives. The mom of one first-grade boy thanked Carpenter for the one-on-one support he received during a tough year, which started with several incidences of fighting at school. The mom said the boy talks about reading and writing all the time and can’t wait to come back.
“We were able to be a safe and supportive place for him when he was struggling in other contexts of his life,” Carpenter said.
Through their writing, kids are able to express whatever they’re feeling – whether that’s a silly, funny story or a more emotional exploration of events in their own lives. Writing about violence isn’t allowed, although a “high level of weirdness” is perfectly acceptable, so long as it helps propel imagination in a beneficial and safe way, Carpenter explained.
“Kids do have the propensity to be dark or weird or explore something frightening and that is okay,” she said.
To support the work of the Grand Rapids Creative Youth Center, donate to their current Take the Helm campaign. They’re working to raise $40,000 by the end of the summer to serve more students, add staff, and contribute to a larger goal of a bigger space by 2020.
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Photo credit: Julie Bitely