Pongo Project Journal

Sharing stories of our work with teens
Aug 30
The Colors of Their Lives

by Vanessa Hooper

[Vanessa was a Pongo mentor and Assistant Project Leader in juvenile detention.]

The moments, in the chill of the cement walls of detention, have been the most powerful, heart­breaking, challenging, and inspiring moments of my life. I have been with Pongo Teen Writing for the last two years. Each Tuesday morning I felt a complexity of anxiousness and excitement wash over me. Unsure of how the voices in detention would color my life, I walked cautiously through the halls, aware of my own sound and energy.

With my Pongo colleagues, I waited patiently as the youth filed in, wondering how and what their days had brought to them. It was at those times I could feel the warmth and splattered paint their pain and passion conveyed against the cold colorless walls. Their words held the weight of the ocean and the lightness of a feather, full of regret and heartache, hope and courage, and confusion and enthusiasm for the future. There are painful stories that haunt me, leaving me dismal and disgusted by the malice and cruelty still breathing in this the world; while others leave me speechless from the undaunted vitality after years of trauma.

Two girls in particular, I was privileged to work with, left me paralyzed after hearing the harsh realities of their young lives. Both pregnant before fourteen, both raped more times than they could count, yet both smiled when we worked together as if they were royalty. “I was a kindergartener with dreams of being a stripper, and I know there are other girls like me,” said one girl, who grew up in the same town where I have my roots. Her poem was a letter to her son, a letter of truths and fear from a young mother who underestimated her own strength, a teenager who after homelessness, drug addiction, prostitution, rape, and abuse still believed in a dream of finding happiness. The other girl came into the Pongo world quietly, expressionless. She sat with poise and beauty, a pregnant twelve-year-old. Living in foster family after foster family, she had been ripped away from her siblings after her mother disappeared. As she began to open up through her poetry, her eyes grew wide with emotion. In contrast to the unthinkable acts she had endured, she held herself like a princess being groomed to be queen.

When I helped both girls create their poems, and as I read their words aloud, I could feel their confidence grow, and the colors of their lives shine. Each one left the room with a smile, as if she had begun to shed the cracked scales of a lost childhood. In a world of bars and barbed wire, with the sounds of echoing fears and the crescendo of doors slamming, where rock bottom feels ice-cold and isolated, there is a pulsating rhythm of hopefulness in the hearts of these youth, a thirst to be more than the label around their wrist and the file that confines them. Their eyes show the innocence of a child in a world where anything is possible, they just need someone to listen, someone like Pongo to see them for so much more than the mistakes in their past. 

Apr 02
The Desire We Feel to Do More

Maria Hoisington has begun a writing program, based on the Pongo model, in the girls juvenile detention center in San Salvador, El Salvador. Previously, Maria had participated with a group that offered legal workshops to the girls in the center in October 2010, but she wanted to reach the young women in a deeper and more personal way. Maria had never taught writing before. She and I met in November 2010 in Seattle, before she returned to San Salvador on a Fulbright scholarship, where she began The Cuentame Project with her colleague Jenna Knapp. In March, Maria and I had the following email exchange, in which she brought me up to date on her work. At the heart of the correspondence is a question, “What do we do with the desire we feel to do more for the girls?”

There are links to some poems and to Maria and Jenna's blog at the end of this article.

Hey Richard!

I hope this email finds you well and that the Seattle weather is treating you all right! I’ve wanted to write you for a few weeks to tell you about working in the girl’s detention center in San Salvador. We just wrapped up our fifth week working with the girls on writing poetry and it’s been an incredible, eye-opening experience. It took a month to get everything set up on an institutional level, getting permission from the center’s director, getting sufficient time approved in order to work with the girls, etc, but finally we were able to begin the first week of February. For the first two weeks, we were with the same group of about 5 girls, who were into the project and would be there waiting for us on the days they knew we were coming. [The detention center is very small, only about 40 girls who have been sentenced, and we just enter the recreational space and are free to snag whoever isn’t in class or a workshop.] After those first two weeks, we began striking up conversations with more girls who were curious about what we were doing, and grabbed a few of them to start writing. A few weren’t into the idea of poetry or writing, but wanted to continue talking to us, so agreed to give it a shot. As it turns out, the girls who were the most hesitant at first are the ones who have most loved the project and want to work with us every time we go. 

It has been amazing hearing their stories, witnessing the way in which they open up about very painful details in their past, and seeing their excitement when they see their typed words. It’s been a constant learning curve for me and the other woman who goes with me, a fellow Fulbrighter who works on violence prevention for another NGO as well, figuring out how to best listen to, guide, and inspire the girls. The first time we work with a girl, we always start with the life story, talking about important events and people who have shaped them and their path. This takes so many different forms, from talking about their mothers, fathers, life on the street, first loves, loss, joy, grief… It is so interesting to see where different girls will take their story. The next time I’ll just begin by talking with them to see how their week was, and sometimes a topic arises from something they’ve said (like if they’ve had a hearing that week), or they’ll already have something they want to talk about, a memory, a relationship, etc. We’ve used a few of the writing prompts from Pongo, which have been great. We’ve written about emotions, questions, giving voice to different parts of the body, for example, which have been a lot of fun for us. There are also girls who will write during the week and have poems prepared on the day we go!

So many interesting and shocking themes have come out of their writing. Sexual and physical abuse, drug use, drug dealing, life on the street, teenage widows, witnessing or losing a loved one to a violent death, gang involvement, having many incarcerated family members and friends… Many of them are teen mothers. A shocking amount have lost boyfriends (or ex-boyfriends) to violent deaths, which has inspired me to explore further the phenomena of teenage widows, an issue I had never thought about in depth, but is quite obvious when you look at the demographic that is most being affected violence, teenage and young adult men. I approached a girl last week that I had never met before, who was sitting and braiding hair with a few girls near the sports court. The other girls talked more, and she was sitting there, shyly, not saying much, until I asked her if she wanted to talk and she nodded. Being with her, hearing her story, witnessing her pain and tears was one of the most intense experiences I think I’ve ever had in my life. She told me about being abandoned by her mother, living on the streets, becoming addicted to glue, being raped multiple times as a little girl, trying to make an honest living, eventually becoming involved with the gang, selling drugs, finding girls to carry illicit items into adult prisons or to sleep with the inmates, further sexual abuse, and being picked up for extortion. I felt her sadness so deeply that I didn’t even know what to do except be present for her and offer myself to listen and to care. She told me that she wanted to write songs and be able to sing them to other people someday, and asked if I thought that would be possible? I said that if she has the will and courage to share her story, that we as people have much to learn from her. I have never seen eyes as sad as hers, and if there is one thing I can offer to her it is the tools and encouragement to put her words on paper. 

Multiple issues are also coming up through this work, and I realize that you are very busy, but any words of wisdom you could offer would be great. Obviously, this is very personal work, but I’m also finding that because it is such a small population we are working with, even if we do not work with certain girls that day, we always see them, talk, etc. There is NEVER enough time to check in with all the girls, to hear how their week was, to see how they’re feeling. I know that’s not my job, but I care, and I worry about that attachment. Something important that I talked about with you or read in Pongo materials is the idea not needing or depending on the youth we work with to fulfill OUR own emotional needs. This is very important, and I think about it a lot, but I think what I struggle with is wanting to be more for the girls than is possible/appropriate/safe/etc. I think it’s our human nature, to nurture, to save people, and sometimes it’s hard to listen to that rational explanation that yes, you are doing great work, you are being present to them and accompanying them in a very powerful process and hopefully making their lives better, but it is not your responsibility to be a parent or to save them. I suppose there are multiple questions that are coming up for me, but this one is the most important, so I’ll leave it at that. At the same time, I do focus on self-care, on keeping myself emotionally healthy, and being able to separate this work from the rest of my life and my own emotional needs. 

This has turned into a very long email. I hope your work is going great, I really enjoy the email updates and reading the new poems you send out!

Take care,

Hey Maria! 

I will do my best to address the issue you raise  -- about the desire to do more for the girls, when you are exposed to so much pain and sadness. 

But first I'd like to say that you are doing wonderful, valuable, healing work. You have taken the leap, to dwell with the girls' sadness and to be strong for them to help them feel human again. You are doing a great job. I don't know how to describe the combination of admiration, respect, pleasure, and warmth I feel when I read your note except to say that I'm proud of you.

Here are some thoughts about your question, about the desire we feel to do more... 

It's the most natural thing to feel this desire to do more. In doing this work you are combining heart and intelligence and competence. You feel the hurt, you see the need, and you know you are capable of making a difference. 

On the other hand, you also understand that your ability to do more is limited by what is possible/appropriate/safe/etc. And this is true. 

So this desire to do more has to be understood philosophically. This feeling won't completely go away, I think. (For me, though, it has lessened over time because Pongo's accomplishments have built over time and because support for Pongo has grown over time.) 

One philosophical point is that there will always be a limit to what you can achieve. There are girls incarcerated in the next town, in the next country, in the future. There is a sadness here that is part of being human. We make mistakes, Our love isn't perfect, Our lives are short. At some level we have to embrace and accept life's limitations. Our ability to accept these limitations makes us stronger and makes our lives deeper. Our own writing can help us grow in this area, as can some religious disciplines. Acceptance doesn't mean we're sad every hour of every day, but sometimes. 

Another point about feeling the desire to do more is that if you DID make the effort to do more it could actually work against the girls and you. When people have been terribly hurt, they often can't trust relationship, and they often have to run away from relationship. For these girls, most of their connections in the real world are reflections of the traumatic connections in their past. Their past lies in pieces, like fallen leaves that float in and out of their sight and grasp. What the girls need first is something other-worldly -- a solid sense of feeling cared about. All of the good you're doing now is made possible because the girls understand that you WON'T try to do too much in your worldly connection to them. They feel safe with you because of that. And they can let themselves feel that you care. The girls know that you can tolerate their sadness, and they have confidence that you can tolerate your own. Ultimately, what the girls need in order to heal is to know that you hold them in your heart. This allows them to hold you in their hearts. That is what makes all the difference. 

There are some practical things you can do to manage this desire to do more, too. You are already doing the most important things, which include self-care, especially emotional self-care. 

But another practical thing is to just keep doing the work, at whatever pace your life allows. Accomplishments will accumulate over time. Patience and perspective also are hard-earned but valuable philosophical traits. 

I think it also helps to build a community outside the detention center that supports and values what you do. I suggest you start writing a newsletter about your work. Send it out to friends, build this circle over time. Articulate your mission, and advocate for your mission. In doing this you not only help the girls, but you will receive validation from others that is important for you. 

Maria, you are facing all of the difficult challenges of this work. I am proud of you. These challenges include feelings that can't be changed, that can only be felt, adjusted to, and to some extent accepted. It's a growthful process that can be embraced. It's a hard but beautiful part of life. 

Does what I'm saying make sense to you? Also, may I share your email in my blog, in particular as a program begun on the Pongo model? 

With Warm Regard,


YES YES it makes sense! Thank you so much for your response, it gave me an incredible sense of peace. First of all, you can definitely share my email in your blog, and I am comfortable with the characterization as a project based on the Pongo model because the Pongo project is what really inspired me to start this work. I knew I wanted to do deeper work with the girls in detention, I knew I didn't want to just be doing group workshops on their rights and conflict resolution because what really drew my attention was learning about them as individuals and hearing the stories of their life journey. Then I was introduced to your work and it was such a perfect example of how to do that work, to value and give voice to their experiences and urge society to see them as people with all of their complexities and not to define them by their crime.

The suggestion to begin a newsletter is a very good one. When I read your email, I started thinking about all of the individuals that I have told about this work, here and in the states, and what great reactions and suggestions I've received from them, but also how so many people in my community (here, there, personal, professional) have a very superficial understanding of the project. What a wonderful opportunity to not only share my experiences and the girls' writing, but to educate, to talk about the criminalization of youth, to touch on the broader themes that arise from their writing. I talked to a young, male friend of mine who lives in a rural area in the mountains right after reading your email, and he said, YES, that's something I would love to read! So I've gotten started on my first bi-lingual newsletter...

Also, I really appreciate the philosophical analysis of this type of work and the feeling of wanting to do more for these girls, especially talking about how the trust and sense of safety is a product of the fact that I am completely removed from other realities in their life. They can trust and feel cared for without worrying about potential consequences or complications, and in that sense, it is an experience of true human connection. “I care about you as a person because you are too a person and deserve to be cared about.” There is something comforting in that simplicity that gave me a great sense of peace.

Thank you for your encouragement. Thank you for saying you feel proud, those words and knowing that people are excited about this work gives me a lot of encouragement and energy to keep going and always work to make it better. I just had a discussion with a coworker about sustainability and about getting university students involved, and am just feeling reminded that this is good work and that there are many people want to get involved to make sure it continues. So thank you again for your very kind words.

Take care!

Maria and Jenna have started to blog about their work, which they have named The Cuentame Project. (In informal Spanish, cuentame means “Tell Me.”) Please check it out! And here are some wonderful poems from the young women in El Salvador. The names are pseudonyms. Maria did the translations.

My Story
Later, I Returned to the Streets
Teenage Widow
If They Could Speak