Pongo Project Journal

Sharing stories of our work with teens
May 14

I met with Shaun recently in a café near the beach in West Seattle. When I walked in, he was sitting at an empty table with his bible open in front of him. I could see that the text was filled with post-it notes and annotations, lines were underlined and highlighted, and several worn pages were ripped. Shaun and I placed our orders and soon surrounded his bible with coffee and cinnamon rolls.

Shaun McMichael has been with Pongo for three years, from his final years at Seattle Pacific University, a Christian university, to his first full-time job, working as a counselor at a residential psychiatric facility for adolescents.

Shaun is one of a fantastic group of Pongo volunteers. And because I’m interested in ideas, I set up this meeting to ask him how his beliefs, different from my own, have informed his work with Pongo. Through Pongo, Shaun has facilitated poetry about trauma from youth in foster care and in the state psychiatric hospital. Here’s a poem that Shaun facilitated with a youth in transition out of foster care. Shaun later put the poem to music to sing at the young man’s poetry assembly.

Afraid of Being Inside the House with Strangers
by a young man transitioning out of foster care, age 17

I’m in a crowd.
It’s confusing to tell who’s who;
They look like strangers.
I don’t know how to feel
With that many people in one room —
Scared, unsure of what
To do except hide.
They look at me
Like I did something suspicious,
Like I blew up a house.
I want to take
My skateboard and ride as far
As I can
And hope nobody sees me.

I do it.
Once I leave, I feel free —
Happy, not afraid.
The roads are dark,
And rainy
And open.
There are people,
But it’s not as crammed
As in that house.
Riding a skateboard
Down a hill —
It’s like a first time
Riding a bike,
That rush of wind
Feels so good
But not as crammed
As in that house
Where there’s no wind.

At the coffee shop I learned that, relevant to his work with Pongo, Shaun’s Christian faith is expressed through love, imagination, and revelation…

For Shaun, love means comforting the poor in spirit, and is well expressed by listening to suffering kids, within a safe and caring relationship. As someone who has worked with adolescents in a therapeutic setting, Shaun understands that love is also a complicated gift that may require adult skills of patience, encouragement, and limit-setting.

Imagination enables Shaun to understand the metaphors of religious teaching. Imagination also helps Shaun to teach metaphor to suffering kids, as a resource for their creative insight. For example, Shaun describes a young author who wrote about Pokemon, and who eventually expressed a wish to use Pokemon powers to bring back the mother who had abandoned him. Like love, imagination can be a challenge as well, where a caregiver is challenged to imagine that a struggling individual is only a blink away from a breakthrough in her healing.

Shaun thinks of revelation in the broad sense of an unveiling. Revelation is the capacity to expose a truth that is elusive, difficult, or even painfully obvious. In this sense, revelation is a natural outcome of honest creative expression, and is the goal of Shaun’s personal writing. For Pongo’s authors, revelation through writing is a step on their path to healing.

I came away from our conversation appreciating that Christianity is a solid and unwavering framework for Shaun’s life, and that within that framework Shaun challenges himself actively and with humility. He looks within his own heart as he explores and commits to religious teaching. Shaun’s principles are unified by a desire to do good through service and to creatively seek the truth. He aspires to live his principles in every aspect of his life, while he is not comfortable, complacent, or self-satisfied. I’m grateful that he brought this effort to Pongo.