We all need comfort, connection and understanding

Soon after I completed my social work master’s degree at the University of SC, I began an internship in one of South Carolina’s maximum-security prisons in Columbia.  I was so touched by the resilience of the imprisoned women who took part in my groups that my two-year plan extended to eight years before I moved on to other work.

During my early years working with the women in prison, I came across the Pongo Poetry Project online, an organization on the west coast whose mission from its beginning in 1995, has been to serve the most vulnerable and neglected teenagers who need help to learn new coping skills in order to make difficult personal changes in their lives. 

All of Pongo’s clients have suffered serious trauma and have found themselves inside detention centers, homeless shelters, psychiatric hospitals or other healing facilities. 

Richard Gold, founder and recently retired chairman of Pongo’s board, explains: “When young people write personally and creatively, it helps them to overcome challenges in their lives.  They feel better, think more clearly, are more self-confident, and are better able to relate to others.”

Prior to founding Pongo, Gold had been managing editor of Microsoft Press in Seattle. The Microsoft Alumni Foundation and Bill and Melinda Gates honored Gold in 2010 for his innovative concept and methods and for Pongo’s successful early years.

An online celebration was held September 27, 2020, with friends and fellow Pongo supporters around the country to commemorate their 25th successful year, Richard Gold’s retirement and plans for the future.       

Gold’s book for professionals, “Writing with At-Risk Youth: The Pongo Teen Writing Method,” has been lauded by informed professionals who have first-hand knowledge of this population, attesting to the positive and powerful outcomes described. 

“Although the Pongo ‘process’ is not therapy in a traditional sense, it represents the essential elements of the most effective treatments that youth can engage in,” according to Eric Trupin, University of Washington School of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science.

Judge Barbara A. Mack, King County Juvenile Court, Seattle, shared: “Pongo works with the most challenged and troubled children in juvenile detention and psychiatric facilities. I have seen the transformation and pride when they show a judge a poem they have written with Pongo.”   

As a client of Pongo earlier in his life, the University of Washington’s current program coordinator for the Division of Public Behavioral Health and Justice Policy, had been an incarcerated youth himself. “Writing was my principal method of venting in a highly constrained and rule-governed environment.”

Naomi Shihab Nye, Young People’s Poet Laureate for the United States, was the featured guest speaker at Pongo’s September 2020 celebration.  She spoke online directly to young people from her home sharing her admiration for Pongo and offering tips for young writers.   

Nye’s American mother and Palestinian father, a refugee journalist when they met, encouraged her poetry from a very young age. 

“I was six when I started writing my own poems, and seven when I started sending them out.”

“Very rarely do you hear anyone say they write things down and feel worse.  It’s an act that helps you, energizes you in the very doing of it.”

She ended her talk sharing some writing tips based on her own experience.     

  • We don’t have to wait for big ideas to come to us.  Just use the little ideas.
  • Believe in taking notes. Just scribble things down as they happen.
  • Listen to little children. 
  • Note overheard comments.
  • In reply to unanswered emails, write little poems.
  • When we’re in trouble, when we need comfort, connection and understanding, we go to poetry.
  • Trust that your own words will give you yourself back.
  • Poetry can help us “take off our armor.”

For years Nye has traveled worldwide to share her poetry and passions.  When travel returns to normal she will be back on the road.

https://www.pongoteenwriting.org/who-we-are.html PBS Video – https://youtu.be/iY8qjBiXvuw

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Susan Hendricks offers guided writing groups in Columbia, SC as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Certified Journal Therapist and Dream Group Leader. Her 25 years of study and practice include eight years leading weekly dream groups at a women’s maximum-security prison. All of her previous Columbia Star Newspaper articles can be read at: www.susanhendricks.com/columbia-star-news

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