Pongo Project Journal

Sharing stories of our work with teens
Feb 27
Hearts Out Loud

At Friends of the Children, King County, the young people come to their writing program 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.

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.

This writing group was created on the Pongo model. Friends of the Children is a mentoring program for children who are growing up in difficult circumstances. It provides consistent and caring companionship for these kids. The program accepts children in kindergarten or first grade and then commits to providing a paid mentor for each child for 12 years.

The writing group 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 blog will eventually start your own writing groups on the Pongo model!

I’ve included a few of the FOTC children’s poems on the Pongo site, including one poem below.

by a child in the Friends program

When I see flowers
I think of how pretty and beautiful they look to me
I like the beautiful colors and the nice smell
when I get close to it
and smell it.

When I see them and I'm mad
and I try and break one
because I'm mad about something at home,

I can break it
but then I realize that it's just like
breaking someone's finger
and pulling the stem that connects to the flower.

And then I think about how its life
is the same as mine
if you die you can't come back.

The flower's life depends on us

Because you kill a flower and it's just like pulling
their finger
it hurts you and the flower.

I protect the flower by not killing or pulling it
I protect the flower just like I protect myself.