Pongo Project Journal

Sharing stories of our work with teens
Apr 07
Yes, Joy & Yes, Doubt.

by Emily Holt, Pongo Project Leader

It’s hard to explain to others the kind of joy I witness in places like juvenile detention and inpatient psychiatric units. Often, the moments are fleeting, but they are there. And, often, they exist—both in me and in a young person—from that young person realizing they can create something to be proud of.

I find it an extreme privilege to be invited to sit down each week with youth who really have no ostensible reason to tell me anything; young women who dream of jumping off bridges, young men about to become a father, children without parents, children with addictions, children who are learning that love doesn’t always have to ruin you.

In any position in which an adult works with a young person, doubt can be a healthy, and I think essential, way to ensure the adult continues to do right by themselves and the young person—doubt about their own skills, about the impact they’re having, about the broader systemic issues they may not seem to be able to touch. I don’t find doubt an indication of failure but a sign of constant self-reflection.

But each time I’ve experienced doubt in regards to Pongo, I am reminded that somehow, this poetry method enables the youth I mention above to sit down across from me, and within a few minutes, to share some of their most difficult experiences.

When I first began using Pongo five years ago, I felt I was bringing something unique to the writing experience, and while I still am, in a way, the focus—and thus the anxiety—is less and less about me. For how many jobs or volunteer positions today rely solely on an interpersonal interaction that, in many ways, won’t naturally happen, one which is free of deadlines and strict outcomes? How many give you weekly doses of joy existing alongside doubt?


You might think, How hard is it to get a kid to confess? Confessional memoirs are all the rage today. The youth we work with don’t come from places where confessing, where airing one’s laundry, where admitting that one’s family is not perfect, is okay. Really, how many of us have no reservations about sharing the things that we fear the most? About hurting those we love by telling a story that presents them in more than one hue?

Yet the Pongo method enables a young person to sit down across from me and take control of their story. Pongo is not about the volunteers; more than any organization I’ve ever worked with, I feel supported by Pongo, but I do not feel like the focus of Pongo. Moreover, the work we do is not  marketing catch-phrase. It’s in our hands as we type, in our bodies as we chose to sit still, to hear stories of rape, of suicide, of addiction. And, first, really, it’s in the youth who write with us.


Emily Holt is a mentor, writer and editor.  She has been with Pongo for several years, and now is the Project Lead at King County Juvenile Detention.  She is a prolific poet and working toward her MFA in Creative Writing at Pacific Lutheran University.  Visit her at www.emilyholtwriter.com