IOWA CITY – Caleigh Stanier wasn’t thrilled about spending her Saturday mornings reading and writing poetry – at first.
“She said she didn’t like poetry,” Heather Widmayer, Caleigh’s mom, says. “When I picked her up after the first class, she loved it.”
By the time “Persona Poems, Puppets & Pop-Up Books” ended in late February, Caleigh could honestly say she was hooked.
“I didn’t think I liked poetry,” Caleigh, 9, says. “Now, I think it’s fun.”
That’s the reaction Iowa Youth Writing Project (IYWP) volunteers hoped for when they added the program to their spring 2012 lineup. Actually, that’s the reaction they hoped for when IYWP officially launched in April 2011.
“We thought the Iowa Youth Writing Project would be a nice supplement to some programs already happening in the community,” Coordinator Dora Malech says.
Instead, the program has taken off at a rate no one expected, moving beyond weekend workshops with elementary and secondary students to include after school creative writing programs, youth writer performances and workshops with organizations throughout the state, including the Upward Bound program at Indian Hills Community College and the Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo.
“We’re sort of pleasantly surprised and pleasantly overwhelmed,” Malech says with a laugh.
She doesn’t expect the momentum to wane anytime soon. In fact, volunteers have spent this year focusing more on the business aspect of the program, joining The James Gang in February to help expand it in its expansion but not lose momentum.
“For a bunch of idealist writers, we sort of went on our model a little bit backwards,” Malech says. “We just started. Now, we’re focusing on the business side, figuring out how to keep it going.”
This could, potentially, lead to a space dedicated to Iowa Youth Writing Project and a regular schedule for students to meet and create. That’s a goal, but Malech says the group didn’t want to wait for five years to secure everything, instead choosing to partner with local businesses and organizations to offer the programs now. Kids like Caleigh are the reason for the “Do this first, worry about the details later” attitude.
“If we had waited, there’s a whole group of students we would have missed,” Malech says.
In creating the Iowa Youth Writing Project, volunteers realized there already was a group of students being missed. Iowa City’s rich creative background had programs for children whose parents could afford them. There are also programs for the children of low-income families. Students in the middle were left behind. At the same time, the division of programs created a division between the participants, students who some days will be at the same high school who have the same interests, but have not had the opportunity to explore them together.
“We thought we were filling a need in the community,” Malech says. “We hadn’t foreseen creating these different communities.”
This includes bringing together students from different schools and family backgrounds to come together and create, and the adult volunteers who mentor them.
IYWP has more than 50 volunteers on its rosters, adults from all aspects of the creative process who give their time and talents to work with students. Each program has a general focus – poetry, playwriting, gothic fiction – but the class works together to shape each course to fit individuals’ needs. It is collaboration and independence combined.
“It’s a community of sharing,” says Lauren Haldeman, an Iowa Youth Writing Project volunteer who assisted with “Persona Poems, Puppets & Pop-Up Books.”
The program, which was open to third through sixth grade students, had participants write poems alone and as a group. Work was shared out loud, for those who wanted to.
“That energy of exploration, that mentorship and sense of community in a non-competitive way is something that’s needed,” Malech says. “It’s non-competitive, but goal-oriented.”
Haldeman says the program gives participants to the opportunity to explore their creativity in a setting that infuses discovery with a sense of fun. Instead of sitting around a table discussing poets, students made puppets to act the poems they’d written.
“At this age, when children write, they are so open; their censors aren’t up,” Haldeman says. “They have amazing creativity and energy.”
Yet another reason to have programs available now, when students are more apt to be honest in their work and not be self-conscious sharing it.
IYWP’s second year will include more weekend programs and partnerships with schools, as well as one-day activities to increase the program’s visibility to the public. Malech says there are no limits to what the program can do, with workshops that stem from imagination and volunteers eager to explore their own creativity, as well as that of the students they work with.
Kids are so willing to try something new,” Malech says. “Iowa Youth Writing Project tells them ‘Do it your way’ and we just see them blossom.”