Pongo Project Journal

Sharing stories of our work with teens
Jul 26
Approaching the Trauma, Not the Crime

by Alex Russell

This year, while volunteering with Pongo in Seattle Juvenile Detention, it seemed like every other night on the news there were stories about kids doing terrible things. Some boys attacked a bus driver at night when she wouldn’t let them off through the back door. A group of girls made national headlines when a video showed them beating another girl in a downtown transit station. When I sat down with a kid to write poems, I hoped he or she wasn’t involved with anything I’d seen on the news the night before.

As Pongo volunteers, we are there to serve kids, not to judge them. Even so, the habit of judging is persistent and reflexive. I was a victim of violent crime in 1998. I was 19 at the time, shot in the neck by a guy who couldn’t have been much older than I was. I thought the experience gave me a window into the lives of those who had also experienced extreme violence. It also predisposed me to judging kids who had committed violence against others. I volunteered with Pongo to help kids no matter where they came from, no matter what they had done. I didn’t think I had to worry about my own judgments.

Toward the end of the year I was facilitating a group poem with a teen I’ll call John and one other boy. In the process of digging for lines, John mentioned how he was on CNN for why he was in Detention. Then things changed. Judgment is a persistent habit. It a filter to help us understand the world around us, and it’s something that happens involuntarily. As soon as I knew what John was talking about I couldn’t help feeling suddenly withdrawn. John’s demeanor seemed to change as well, but unrelated to what anyone else said or did. It was as if he realized immediately what it meant to become “that criminal on TV” instead of just John, a kid trying to get through a poem.

John was likely the same as every other kid I worked with, someone who’s experienced major emotional traumas. At our best as Pongo volunteers, we help kids externalize traumas most of them bury in order to survive. When the traumas are on paper, they lose a lot of their power. My fellow mentor Eli Hastings described it as turning shame into pride: by writing poems, kids turn traumatic memories they are ashamed of into works of art they are proud of. Because of this, it only makes sense to approach the trauma and not the crime, the seismic skip that is a symptom of that trauma. Approaching the trauma is the only way for anyone to heal.

When I went to drop off his poems, John was the same as every other kid I worked with last year. He was happy to see me and started reading his poems as soon as I slipped them under the door. Everything was as if the session had gone perfectly. It made me think that maybe I wasn’t the failure I thought I had been. More than anything, it reminded me that the process of recovering from trauma is complicated and imperfect, and never really over. The symptoms can change over time, whether they begin with actions that find us imprisoned, or with unsettling judgments against others. Both share the same root causes, but if I learned anything as a Pongo volunteer it’s that there is always a way to move forward.