Friends of the Children 

[The first writing group that was founded on the Pongo model was a wonderful group that ran for four years at Friends of the Children, King County, which is a mentoring program for youth living in difficult circumstances. Pongo owes a huge debt of gratitude to Robin Brownstein, MSW, to Kevin Long, and to FotC Program Director Edgar Masmela. This first Pongo-inspired project evolved into a girls' group over time and did beautiful work. We witnessed the easy way the young writers laughed and cried together, as they joyfully shared their writing and supported one another's growth. This project first mentored Pongo writer Angel Gardner, who, though challenged by homelessness, went on to become Seattle 2016-17 Youth Poet Laureate. When Pongo received the Seattle Mayor's Arts Award in 2013, this project kindly hosted a video about Pongo by Reel Grrls that was produced for the award ceremony. Thank you, Robin, Kevin, Edgar, and writers. Here is the FotC story...]

The young people at Friends of the Children named their writing group "Hearts Out Loud," and they come to their sessions with so much enthusiasm and commitment to openness that they tell the adults, “I’M GOING TO MAKE YOU CRY TONIGHT!”

And they do.

Recently, one young man’s sister was murdered by her boyfriend. The boy wrote about it. Then the other young people wrote about murders in their lives. And importantly, this writing and discussion opened the door not just for other similar experiences, but for the kids to write about grief and loss, from violence in the community, to death of loved ones, to estrangement from parents, siblings. Many of the kids talked about it being the first time they had the opportunity to commemorate, grieve, process, and hold these people in mind. This continues to be a strong theme in the writing and is incredibly therapeutic and empowering.

At the same time, in the manner of Pongo, as the young people write about difficult experiences, they also write with purpose and gratitude. After writing about tragedy, the kids will say that “a ton of bricks is off my back.” And the kids have taken charge of their writing program, which they named “Hearts Out Loud.” They planned the first public reading of their work (February 2010).

For the adult mentors and volunteers who participate, they say that supporting this writing group, even working late one evening, is the highlight of their week. The kids open up. The mentors can’t get them to leave the building. The kids continue the conversations with their mentors on the ride home.

The writing group at FotC was started because of Robin Brownstein. Robin is a clinical social worker and psychotherapist who is also an unpaid consultant to FotC. She approached me at a conference, where I was presenting my work on how writing can be a therapy for survivors of trauma. Robin is passionate about supporting the resilience of youth.

Later, I met with Robin and FotC program director Edgar Masmela. They and some FOTC adult mentors and community volunteers attended the first Pongo workshop on our teaching techniques. I advised them on how to run their writing group. But, frankly, their writing group is successful today because Robin, Edgar, and the other adults have the hearts and minds to listen and hold the kids’ powerful words.

By the way, Robin informs me that the FotC writing group knows me and Pongo. The kids have committed to “Richard’s rules”:

  • You write what’s in your heart.
  • This is a safe space.
  • You can write about anything, and no one will judge you.

How lucky am I! I hope some of you who are reading this article will eventually start your own writing groups on the Pongo model!

Selected Poems from Friends of the Children (2009-2012) 

Poetry Saved My Life
My Anger
I Would Like to Understand
Forbidden Fairly Tale
Face Your Fears
Blue to Red
When I See Flowers
My Dad 

"Hearts Out Loud" Volunteers
Robin Brownstein
Kevin Long
Jen Dixon
Christopher Beard
Karin Yeung
Emily Holt 

FotC Staff
Alicia Uehling
Jasmine Hill
Sheena Fanuncial
Kenan Oliver
Sue Wilkins
Janae Ross
Parmah McAllister
Upendo Jefferson

We would love to hear from you!
And we can help you find your poem.