Pongo Project Journal

Sharing stories of our work with teens
Jul 08
Riding in My Own Canoe to Find a Dream
by Shaun McMichael

[Shaun is a former Pongo writing mentor who now heads "The Zine Project" for street youth, a program of Catholic Community Services in Seattle. This blog is an excerpt from an article in which Shaun describes the challenges and methods of teaching writing to homeless teens, especially when many are struggling with deep distress and mental illness. The names, genders, and physical descriptions of "Thomas" and the other young people in Shaun's article have been changed. Learn more about Shaun's methods by reading his ENTIRE ARTICLE elsewhere on the Pongo site.]

When Thomas entered my program, The Zine Project for street youth, he was in the throes of schizophrenia—an illness that was quite new and disturbing to him. He was slightly built, with olive skin, dark hair, and brown eyes. Thomas would arrive to work most days an hour late, burst through the door in a scramble, demanding to know if he smelled. And asking me to look out the window to make sure no one was following him.

By the time I convinced him he was safe, he would express the following concerns: that somewhere in the world there was a famine, that his family was in danger, that he was in danger from his family, and that people were circulating indecent photos of him on the web.

He was alternately suspicious and infatuated with his peers, searching feverishly for commonality and even fabricating connections at times to cope with his loneliness.

Needless to say, Thomas missed a lot of work. He was hospitalized for several weeks during the project; but because of his intrinsic interest in writing and his faithfulness communicating with me on the phone, I kept him in the program, telling him I could give him make-up hours for any writing or artwork he did in the hospital. 

The day he was discharged, he dropped off a stack of unorganized scribbles—all on varying sizes of papers (legal, letter, note-card, post-it, etc.), intermingled with doodles. I took on the Sisyphean task of reading the writings and discovered a terse litany characterized by accusation and confusion.

I talked with a mental health therapist at our center. She acknowledged that Thomas might like writing on his own in this way, but doubted that it was helpful for him. 

“He’ll just keep spiraling in his head like this,” she told me.

The next day when Thomas came in to see what I thought, he was nervous—smelling his nails and tearing at his frayed jeans. 

My program sets up the goal that each youth form a collection of work, a collection they’re proud of, but also one that can be shared—with friends, therapists, family, and the wider community. Thomas, I think, realized that the writing he produced on his own wouldn’t work for this medium. 

He expressed this to me, “I think my writing is too… personal.”

I agreed.

I then told Thomas that I had a trick up my sleeve that could help him.

This trick was Pongo’s Dictation Method. 

Thomas agreed to try. 

I sat down at the computer, Thomas sat next to me. I wanted to start with something light—something away from family issues, famines, and psych wards. 

I’d noticed that he often doodled canoes in the margins of his writings. Sensing potential for a symbol, I asked him what canoes meant to him.

“People might kill me if they knew,” he said.

“Thomas, that sounds like a paranoid thought to me,” I replied, frankly.

“It’s not. People might kill me.”

“They’re not going to kill you, Thomas. That’s not true,” I said. It felt good telling him that. By doing so I wasn’t lording some universal truth over him. I was assuring him, inviting him, and freeing him. At least for a moment.


“What do canoes make you think of?”

They make me think of a nursery rhyme. You know, like life is but a dream,” he replied.

I started typing. “What else do you think of?”

“It makes me think of teamwork. I’m not necessarily going to be in someone else’s canoe to be part of a team. It’s like I’m riding my own canoe along with other people riding theirs on the same body of water.”

I continued asking questions. I wanted to know what the water was like (calm or tumultuous?); what it was like paddling alongside the others. Thomas answered my questions, elaborating in his own voice and discovering his own images. My fingers ran across the keys, capturing it all with the same gusto I would have used if the ghost of Frost or Cummings were speaking.

“We’re paddling so we can get across…” he said.

“To where?” I asked.

“To a home… Or. Uh, another country,” he paused.

“How can we finish this?” I asked, sensing we were near a conclusion. I called Thomas’ attention to the first line about how “life is but a dream” and pointed out that many times poets like to loop back to their starting place as a way of tying things together.

"Or a dream!” Thomas said and the poem was finished.

Donald Hall says that when a poem arrives at its proper close, you can hear it as clearly as a latch closing. Thomas and I found that end by working together—something not all poets experience.

by "Thomas"

Makes me think of a nursery rhyme.
Life is but a dream.

It makes me think of teamwork.
I don’t have to be in someone else’s canoe to be part of a team.
I’m riding my own canoe
along with other people riding theirs
On the same body of water,
A lake.
It may seem competitive, but
What we’re really trying to do is just move along and just do.

The lake can be like a river because
We always have to make quick decisions
Because the lake might have tide pools or be wavy
And rocky.

We see people struggling,
to survive riding their canoes.
People paddling too slow, going the wrong ways. We might think
Someone’s going too slow,
but they’re just taking their time
Or going as fast as they can.

Other times, we see people tipping,
And we make sure they don’t drown.
Sometimes people need to be allies of the others
Riding the canoes.
So it won’t ever have to be up to one person
To be the hero of the person drowning.
So we can make it across
To the other side of the lake.
So we can find a home,
Another country,
Or a dream.

Thomas developed this canoe picture into a metaphor for an ideal community—one where the members helped each other, and accepted individual needs and struggles. A dream, yes. A source of inspiration—yes, as well. 

Jun 12
Poetry Saved My Life

Friends, in 17 years of doing Pongo's work, of helping young people write poetry after terrible childhood trauma, I have continued to learn and grow, to the point that I feel a kind of awe for the power of poetry and for the resilience in the poets. There is brilliance in the young people's accomplishments, and this is not hyperbole.

Among the things I've learned...

I've seen that life's worst experiences can exist as strangers in us, separate, like people we don't know and don't want to know. Yet these worst experiences remain our passionate life companions.

I've seen that our emotions after life's worst experiences can be sealed in a variety of containers, some buried, or in a black hole, some that explode unexpectedly, some that exist only in the public realm, some that exist only in private, some that exist in one part of ourselves and not in others.

But I've also seen that through poetry, people can open these containers, and move their contents, these painful emotions, into new frames that are more open and repurposed for a meaningful life.

In the poem below, a young woman from the "Hearts Out Loud" group uses poetry to reframe her emotional life after years in foster care and after her brother's murder two years before.

I attended a reading last week where this poet and her colleagues read with incredible joy, pride, and purpose, in celebration of their lives.

Poetry Saved My Life
by "Bad One," a young woman, age 14

See just before fire was sent to the rain
Before I even saw a glimpse of the pain
Before the arrow was shot through my heart
Before people's words could tear me apart
There was hope! Yes, little but there was Hope.

Before deceiving lies, foster care, love in disguise
Before tears of hunger bellowed in my brother's eyes
Before cries and pleading to survive
There was a gift from God
That hadn't yet been received nor forgotten!

So here I stand with no gun, only a pencil in hand
And in that drawer no bullets, but paper in store
But still the idea in mind is murder
Not the murder of a person, but the murder of emotions
And the only casket is the notebook that binds the faces together

At last I write about the sins within me
At last I speak of the unknown terror of my life
At last the emotions that keep the devil in me are released
Finally the burden of my brother's death can
Be resurrected with only one soul knowing! ME!

All 3 of my parents have a piece of my heart
So now it's time to give the world a piece of my mind
But instead of a massacre and a life sentence
I write poetry and spit flows within me
All I can say is Poetry saved my life.

["Hearts Out Loud" is the first poetry group that was started on the Pongo model. It runs weekly at Friends of the Children, a mentoring agency in Seattle. The group was started and is led by child therapist Robin Brownstein. Here is more info, more poetry, and more credit to the volunteers and staff behind "Hearts Out Loud."]

Feb 26
Dear Mom

When I first starting working with distressed teens, and they wrote about disappointments with their parents -- like having a dad who cared more about alcohol than his children, like having a mom who stayed with a boyfriend who beat her -- I was surprised when the teens dedicated their poems to the parents. I actually thought, at first, that the teens were being ironic.

Of course, this was absolutely not true. There was nothing about the youth that was calculating or adult when it came to expressing a child's love. The teens loved their parents deeply, very deeply, maybe even more deeply than others love, because of their disappointment.

I started to think about all the good reasons for this. Children understand their parents' brokenness, and they want to take care of their parents -- to be a parent to the parent. Also, it's natural for us as children to love deeply in order to earn the love we desire. And when our lives feel flawed, it's natural for us as children to raise our determination to love -- to circumscribe with love a safer and better world.

The two poems below are by young women who are writing to their moms. The first was written in juvenile detention by Davina (a pseudonym). The second was written on Pongo's web site by a young woman on the East Coast, and is the latest winner of our web site's Pongo Poetry Prize, for the period ending January 1st. The Pongo Prize winner is followed by links to three wonderful poems that earned Honorable Mention. Please enjoy!

Dear Mom 
by a Davina, age 16 

I just thought you should know that life is hard -- I've seen a lot: 
murders, love like grandma's peanut butter pancakes, hate like my parents' addiction and absence, my siblings tormenting me because I have a different dad
(theirs sent money, mine disappeared)

I'm loud, but it's a mask
On the inside I'm quiet
But I'm making sure I'm seen and heard

I just thought you should know that your actions make me hate you, everything you made me see -- It made me think you didn't care:
taking me to drug houses, letting people do what they wanted to me so you could score

I'm going to be more than you were
I'm going to make you proud of me

I just thought you should know that I love you and that the pain that you caused taught me a lesson -- about how to treat my children:
I'll never do to them what you did to me

I'm going to help them succeed

I Will Always Love You
by a young woman, age 16 

Dear Mom,

I just thought you should know what I'm doing now.
I am a strong, happy, Young Lady,
who spends a lot of time thinking about you and how you are doing.

I just thought you should know that I'm feeling a little disappointed in you.
I am just a little upset that you're not understanding how much you affect me,
because I'm always wondering when I'll have my mom back.

I just thought you should know what I've been through.
Since the last time I saw you, I have grown and changed so much.
The time that I had with you was especially important to me. 

I just thought you should know what I wish for the future.
I hope that you can get yourself together so my judge will accept you back into my life.
I am glad I don't have to worry about you and all those men, anymore.

I just thought you should know what I miss a lot.
I miss the way we used to have fun and spend time with X.

I just thought you should know that I will ALWAYS LOVE YOU, MOM.

Honorable Mention, January 2012 
She Stalks Every Movement

Oct 16
Trapped in Life!!

It's my pleasure to announce the latest winner of the Pongo Poetry Prize. "TRAPPED" is a stunning poem about fear, hiding, and despair in an abusive home. But it also represents the courage of a poet who is able to go TO that child hiding under the bed, in her moment of world-destroying terror. I've included the award-winning poem below, and a second by the same author.

In "MY WORLD" our poet, in a more adult voice, describes a chaotic and dangerous circus inside someone, where a loving soul is hiding.

These two poems are followed by links to three fantastic poems that received Honorable Mention.

by a young woman, age 18











by a young woman, age 18











[Author Statement: "I have been writing poetry for years. Writing is the only way I can express myself without being misunderstood. I searched the web long and hard and found Pongo Teen Writing. I read about the web site, loved it, and decided to add a few of my poems on there. I have books and more books of nothing but poems. I would love to keep writing for Pongo Teen Writing."]

Honorable Mention, July 2011
Ruin and Effort (about the heroic work to create a life after loss)
Another Child (about a childhood with too little)
I'm Still Breathing (about emotional need, physical connection, and risk)

May 18
When I Face My Fear

In March, at a Friends of the Children poetry reading, an 11-year-old called Mimi (a pseudonym) performed her poem “Face Your Fears.” In her performance, Mimi was helped by an adult mentor, who recited the lines that Mimi repeated. The result was a litany that included these lines:

          Face your fears 
                                               Face your fears

          Face your fears 
                                               Face your fears 

          It is the main event 
                                               It is the main event 

Imagine what it means for a young person to understand that truth, that facing your fears is the main event. And imagine how significant it is to be courageous, like a litany, in response to these fears. 

Here’s another poem by different young woman, a 16-year-old called Mary (a pseudonym) who used the Pongo fill-in-the-blank activity “Lessons of Courage and Fear”:

Lessons of Courage and Fear
by Mary, age 16

In my life I’ve known Courage.
We met when I had my baby boy.
Nowadays Courage is standing by my side.
I find Courage when I face my fear and speak my mind. 

In my life I’ve known Fear.
We met when I got sexually abused.
These days Fear is the nightmares that don’t let me sleep.
Fear finds me when I see those guys that have hurt me. 

I’ve learned that Courage and Fear are different.
When Courage tells me that I am strong and I don’t have to look behind,
Fear says I’ll never be me again.
Usually I listen to Courage, Fear, and my heart.
I wish no one may know my fears and only see my courage and strength
So that I can be me again.
I wish I was Courage and not Fear. 

In her poem, Mary writes about Fear in the form of sexual abuse. So imagine Courage, in this context, like a litany, to face your fear over and over again – maybe every single night and every single day – whenever you have a nightmare or see your abuser. 

I am happy to award the latest Pongo Poetry Prize to Mary’s poem about Courage and Fear. And here is a link to Mimi’s poem. Please read the following three wonderful poems that received Honorable Mention: 

Nightmare (about a terrible nightmare that plays like a movie)
Sometimes I Feel Like (how sometimes we all hide from the dark)
Trapped Inside (about a feeling, after a loss, that you're tightly bound by vines overgrown with thorns)

May 03
To the Poets at Global Connections H.S.!

To Ms. Schicht’s class at Global Connections High School in SeaTac, Washington: Thank you for writing and sharing your poetry. I’ve published the three poems you sent me, at the end of this blog, and I look forward to reading your anthology!
To other teachers and counselors who read my blog: I’d like to share the email from Melissa Struyk, who interned with Leslie Schicht this year. Melissa writes about how she and Leslie used the Pongo web site in teaching their poetry unit, and about some of the cool outcomes for the students. These outcomes included the fact that the teachers deepened their knowledge of the students, and the students deepened their connections to one another. Aside from its association with Pongo, which makes me proud, this poetry unit is beautifully conceived. Please check it out!
The email from Melissa is very timely, because Pongo still has places (and SCHOLARSHIPS) for our upcoming workshop for teachers and counselors on May 14 in Seattle.



Hello Richard. My name is Melissa Struyk, I took the Pongo workshop for teachers with you last spring. I have used your online website resources so many times in the last year, your site is just so wonderful! Thank you for the teaching support for in the classroom. 

I'm writing to you today because this past winter I was interning with a Language Arts class out at Global Connections High School in SeaTac, WA. While in this internship, my cooperating teacher Leslie Schicht and I used your site to do a two-week creative poetry writing unit with our 9th grade students. The demographics of Global Connections HS is highly diverse – 24% white, 23% black, 29% Hispanic, 23% Asian/Pacific Islander, 1% Native American. In the school, 23% of students are English Language learners. 

This poetry unit was extremely successful; we really got to know our students, and they also made deep connections with each other. We created an anthology (one poem submitted by each student), and the class took a vote on their three top poems. The main reason I'm writing you is to find out if I can submit these top 3 winners for the next $50 Pongo Poetry Prize in July! 

Here is our story. We began this poetry unit at the end of March. We had two weeks to cover the poetry writing, and our goal as a class was to create a class anthology, where each student would submit a piece of their best work. To start the unit, Leslie used your website to pull out a few poetry outlines, and she created a packet of different types of poems for students to look at. Then, each day, students were given a task of writing a poem based on a particular style or technique. In the writing process, the most difficult part for students seemed to be getting started. When we introduced poetry to them, about half of the class moaned while the other half seemed excited or neutral. We used a few of your fill-in-the-blank poems the first few days to help get the kids started. This helped those who felt daunted or overwhelmed with writing a poem. It also helped students to see the different ways that a poem can be structured. Some students didn't want to use the fill-in-the-blank, but they did use the topic that was suggested - such as "Self-Portrait" and "Ten Reasons to Love Me." 

In addition to using your website, students were required to understand a list of poetry terms (simile, metaphor, imagery, stanzas, line breaks, etc.), and then they had to practice writing their own poems using some of these techniques. After the first week of poetry writing, we pushed them further by giving them challenges to include three or four of the elements of poetry and to write about experiences they've had in their own lives. We even spent one day going outside and finding inspiration outside of the classroom. In the middle of the second week, students had to choose their favorite poem and then expand on it and re-write it. They had a conference with Leslie and had to defend their understanding and use of poetry terms. When they had perfected their poem, they had to edit, peer revise, and finally publish it in the class anthology. On the last day of the unit, we took a class vote (by ballot) and the top three poems were selected to enter to your site for the $50 prize contest. Although this wasn't a factor for all students, it did seem to add an element of motivation for a handful. 

On the last day we also had a writers circle set up, and we gave students time to read through the entire anthology. As a final assessment, each student read their poem out loud – while two different students commented on what they liked about that poem. It was a thought-provoking, enlightening day. Students said things like: "Wow, I didn't know that about you" and "Whoa, that's sad! I didn't know you live far away from your mom" and "You don't have any friends? That's so sad!" and "I feel the same way about..." It was encouraging to hear students be able to express their innermost fears, experiences, and triumphs. Especially when you take into consideration the reluctance of most 9th graders to talk this way...They were rock stars! 

It was clear that by the end of class, we all knew something new or even hidden about everyone in the room. Because of this, I think students felt more connected to each other, even if they weren't all aware of this on a conscious level. Overall, the unit was a total success! I would definitely teach this unit again, and I will, without a doubt, use Pongo Teen Writing to help introduce students to poetry and the healing effect it can have on a young person's – on anyone's – life. 

Here are the three poems that our class voted to submit.

A Good Day?! 
by JB 

It used to be dark and grey,
But now something has to change.
It is going to be a good day. 

It's a difference for today,
Tomorrow will not be the same.
It used to be dark and grey. 

There is no reason to betray,
I do not want any of this fame.
It is going to be a good day. 

I am trying to forget those days,
I am not the one to blame.
It used to be dark and grey. 

I don't want my life on display,
I am just stopping some of this pain.
It is going to be a good day. 

Let's try and change our lives today,
This life is not just a game.
It used to be dark and grey.
It is going to be a good day. 

Skipping School 
by JE 

I come to school and start 
I see the cops and I start 
The principal came out and started 
I was running so fast that I started 
I was so scared that I stopped 
I can do nothing to 
      Fix it.
But I still have to 
      Mix it.
Now look at me and tell me what you 
A young boy coming out of the streets trying to be something you can't 
This is me, and I'm not trying to be what you can't see. 

The Old World 
by NC 

So you want to get to know me.
During my middle school year. 

You want to know what I see.
So I'll tell you Crystal clear. 

Imagine a tree lit on fire.
By one’s evil desire. 

Imagine having a friend.
Who betrays you in the end. 

Imagine getting your head slammed.
Into a street lain. 

By that friend you damned.
Imagine the pain. 

Imagine being isolated.
And always frustrated. 

So you want to know me.
You want to see what I see. 

Imagine losing hope in our society.
With all the poverty. 

Imagine being overwhelmed in hate.
Up to Grade 8. 

I covered up my anger with a disguise.
My mind was poisoned by the lies. 

Your thoughts must be swirled.
But this was my world. 

Imagine a stream of light shining through the darkness.
Cleansing my thoughts of all the rage. 

Now I'm harmless.
Because of the light’s change.

Apr 18

Starcia Ague’s public story is inspiring in itself – the story of a young woman, now 23, who spent 5 ½ years in juvenile jail for a serious crime, but who worked her way to an education, a Governor’s pardon, and a research position at the University of Washington where she addresses juvenile justice issues. She earned the support of mentors and guides who helped her. She found God. And along the way, Starcia went public with her own history of growing up with addicted, sometimes homeless, drug-dealing parents. Her history includes abandonment by her parents and terrible abuse from an acquaintance of her mother. 

But I want to add to Starcia’s story here. There are unrecognized qualities and strengths in people who are resilient after childhood abuse. I’m finding that these survivors… 

  *     Make fiercely independent decisions in order to change and survive 
  *     Engage in deep and private processes of emotional and intellectual growth 
        that empower their change 
  *     Go it alone in significant ways, as they are forced to leave behind family and 
        old friends who are often destructive and rejecting 
  *     Are the objects of prejudice for their past suffering and survival behaviors, 
        even from significant people in their new lives 
  *     Are purposeful in their desire to help others 
  *     Suffer always from the effects of the childhood abuse they once endured, 
        even as they survive and thrive 
  *     Are happy with their lives 
  *     Don’t always know how extraordinary they are 

Here are a few instances from Starcia’s life… 

Starcia’s pardon is a wonderful gift to her, but it’s also a mixed blessing. In a fiercely independent and purposeful decision, Starcia has chosen to make her history, and her crime, part of the public record. Anyone who searches her name on the internet can find out about her past. But Starcia has made this choice so that she can work for other youth. The pardon enables her to work on juvenile justice issues. Today she is advocating for legislation that would seal juvenile records. 

While Starcia has had tremendous help from mentors along the way, there was a time of deep and private thought for her that facilitated change and growth. It began when a woman visited the church service at juvenile jail and told her own story of childhood abuse and recovery. Starcia saw a possibility for herself, and she spent time with her Bible then, reviewing her life, and seeking answers to difficult questions about meaning and forgiveness. 

Like many survivors of childhood abuse, Starcia has had to make painful decisions – enduringly painful decisions – in relation to family and old friends. She would like to help people she cares about. At the same time Starcia is criticized and rejected by many of these people for the new life she has created. And some people from her previous life would not be safe for her. In important ways, Starcia has had to go it alone. 

Many survivors of childhood abuse and its consequences make their own decisions about whether or not to share their histories with others. But with her openness and her work in the juvenile justice field, Starcia spends time with people every day who know about her past and her record. She understands that sometimes people are suspicious of her. 

For survivors of terrible childhood traumas, there is a continuing ordeal into adulthood, in spite of their accomplishments and satisfactions. Starcia said to me that if there is one thing she could change about her life it wouldn’t be the time in jail or anything like that, it would be the continuing emotional and physical effects of childhood abuse. 

So, coming back to Starcia’s public story, she is someone who suffered a terrible childhood, committed a crime in adolescence for which she served time, achieved an education, and attained meaningful work to help others like herself. But in addition she has shown an independent spirit and sense of purpose that fueled all her current accomplishments (with significant help from wonderful people along the way).
And, importantly, she has experienced a private world of ongoing challenge and growth that is extraordinary. She has my best wishes and admiration.

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

Mar 08
The Trauma of Child Abuse

by Richard Gold

A personal summary and organization of ideas on this issue. I am not a trained clinician, so some of my descriptive words may be inexact as terminology.

1.   Abuse is an overwhelming experience that creates fragmented states of being for the child (and for the adult survivor of childhood abuse). A person may function very capably at times after abuse, but may also revert internally to being a child who is overwhelmed, which I’ll describe as a child in a state of terror. As oppos­ed to the capable state, a person in the terror state feels trapped, unable to benefit from his or her own cognitive skills to reflect, problem solve, or gain perspective.

2.   Very important­ly, the fragmentation is a response to traumatic experi­ences that are often not remembered, not acknow­ledged, or not understood.

3.   The fragmentation, in response to unremembered experiences, places a person inside a chaotic universe of powerful and unattributed emotions/conditions, such as anger, numbness, anxiety, and depression.

4.   This fragmentation is a survival technique, the best a child can do to wall-off the terror of abuse. Sadly, the walled-off terror is also “preserved” in this way.

5.   Because the different ways of being (for example, of capable functioning and of overwhelm­ing terror) don’t really “know” one another, a person can flip back and forth between these states, sometimes for self-protection, in a way that limits under­standing and makes healing difficult.

6.   Abuse is more devastating for the child when the victim is younger, when the abuse occurs over a longer period of time, and when the abuser is in a close relationship with the victim.

7.   A child is especially vulnerable to abuse when there is a destructive parental system (which is often the case). Instead of having parental bonds that provide a sense of wholeness, of comfort, and of being an acceptable person, the victim feels a particularly strong sense of personal failure and defectiveness after abuse.

8.   This inner concept of defectiveness is an organizing principle for an abused child. It preserves the goodness of the parents in the child’s eyes and helps the child make sense of its world. It is a survival technique, but terribly painful.

9.   The fragmentation and the sense of personal defectiveness reinforce one another.

10.  There are biological factors in an abused child’s states of terror, in addition to emotional factors, that determine the child’s experience and reaction to trauma.

11.  Beyond these circumstances of fragmentation and a sense of personal defective­ness, there are other powerful factors within abuse that reinforce the traumatic conditions. Two such factors are blame and shame.

12.  A child is blamed. It’s important to understand that abuse is not a “simple” hit or sex act. Abuse is coercive. The victim is blamed for the victimization. In the proc­ess, the abuser exerts control in ways that are torturous and terrifying.

13.  A child feels ashamed. It’s important to understand that the failure of kindness and protection in the family is a profound wound to the child. The victim is deeply ashamed at this loss and carries the burden of feeling unlovable.

14.  Beyond the circumstances of fragmentation and a sense of personal defective­ness, that reinforce one another and are further reinforced by blame and shame, there are powerful factors within abusive family systems that reinforce trauma.

15.  Here are some of the factors in abusive family systems that reinforce trauma. Within a family, the abuser may not only be dominant, but idealized. And everyone in the family may measure themselves by the abuser’s moods. It is a condition of abuse that victims identify with the aggressor, and will sometimes judge themselves and others through the eyes of the aggressor (which can be a source of guilt for the victim). Often there is an enforced isolation for the family, where the abuser passes judgment and controls outside contacts. This isolation limits the child victim’s opportunities for understanding and healing. Often in an abusive family there is a parent who is a passive enabler of the abuser, and this role is significant. The enabler makes it possible for the family to be a self-contained system. The en­abler may support or justify the abuser. The enabler may allow or even encour­age the child to serve as a target for abuse. The enabler is frequently suffering from his or her own history of abuse. Ultimately, the abused child may carry a respon­si­bility to mollify the abusive parent and to protect the enabling parent. In this environ­ment the abused child may also feel protective of siblings and pets, and may feel terrorized by, or implicated in, abuse directed there. In the end, the abused child may carry the huge burden of preserving the family as an ideal – and therefore may carry a huge burden of guilt for failing in that impossible task.

16.  It is my observation that although the abuser sometimes wants an abused child to appear successful in superficial ways to the world outside the family, the abuser doesn’t really want the child to be emotionally accomplished. In addition to messages from the parent that the child deserves blame for family problems, there are also significant messages that the parent doesn’t want the child to be happy or to succeed as a person beyond the abusive parent’s limited capabilities. So the child feels guilt and failure for its successes, as well for its victimizations.

17.  Beyond the family system’s own talents for submitting to the abuser and isolating itself, there are also societal factors that preserve the traumatic family system. Society is afraid and avoidant – ultimately in denial about abuse. The helplessness and terror of abuse creates feelings of vulnerability in its witnesses. As a result there is anger and a stigma that are part of society’s reaction to abuse, and this anger and stigma falls most heavily on the victim. (This anger and stigma may be witnessed in society’s failure to recognize mental health issues among the homeless and incarcerated.) Unfortunately, the victim of abuse is the easiest person for society to blame and repress, because of the vic­tim’s own sense of confusion, feelings of failure, acting-out behaviors, and desire to protect the family. Also, the social system is set up so that once a family’s failures are identified, a family may be dispersed and destroyed. In this eventu­ality, the victim of abuse is the easiest person for the family to blame and repress. It is sometimes the victim who is isolated by the family. In this eventuality, in which a family is dis­persed, the victim of abuse suffers particular­ly, because it has always been the victim’s goal to keep the family intact.

18.  One powerful theme throughout circumstances of abuse is the theme of secrecy. There are secrets that the child victim keeps from itself. There are secrets that the child victim keeps from the abuser, from the enabler, etc. – and vice versa. There are secrets that the abusive family keeps from society. The abusive family sus­tains itself with falsehoods.

19.  The victims of child abuse may suffer many problems in life, including forms of self-harm (such as cutting), eating disorders, intimacy difficulties, substance abuse. Particularly horrifying to friends and observers is that some victims have a recurring pattern of recreating childhood abuse by entering dangerous situa­tions or abusive adult relationships.

20.  The victims of child abuse may have notable areas of resilience, including being self-sacrificing and empathetic, with a strong desire to help others. They may have perfectionist qualities, intellectual strengths, and creative talents. Victims may have many extraordinary gifts that are the pro­duct of their extraordinary efforts to save their families and themselves. They may be driven by a strong sense of moral purpose.

21.  In the world of the victim of child abuse, there is a very special role for creative writing as a tool for healing. The primary way to counteract fragmentation is to cognitively and symbolically integrate feeling and experience – in other words, to write openly and in a feeling way about personal experience. The sense of defectiveness, blame, and shame are all mitigated by personal writing because writing externalizes and objectifies experience, thus removing it from intensely self-critical internal processes. And then there is the fact that creative accomplish­ments can be publicly shared, which builds self-esteem, facilitates further com­mu­ni­cation, and alleviates isolation. Eventually the impact of abuse can be lessened by expressing oneself honestly.

Feb 19
As Strong as the Waves that Swallow Me

When we experience great hurt, it’s in our human nature to blame ourselves, often.
And when we experience great hurt, it’s in our human nature to generate great emotion, often, that we can use in the cause of insight, connection, and purpose. This emotion is a tremendous strength.
And, as I witness this strength in so many Pongo writers who have experienced childhood traumas, I appreciate these young people, and I believe it’s important for all of us to appreciate them. They are showing us how strong we can all be.
With this journal, I am announcing the latest winner of the Pongo Poetry Prize, a poem called “Strength” by a 16-year-old young woman whom I’ll call Evie (a pseudonym). Evie sent me three poems over the internet on Christmas day, using Pongo activities of I Am, Ten Reasons to Love Me, and You Don’t Me. In these poems Evie wrote about feeling uncared for and wretched, and she wrote about her need to cut herself. But she also wrote about the power of her words and dreams. I thanked her for these poems and expressed my reaction that they were about difficult feelings but also contained the voice of a sensitive, articulate, strong, and creative person. The next day Evie sent me her prize-winning poem, which is included below and is based on the Pongo activity Strength.
And after “Strength,” I have included another poem from Evie, one that she sent me a few days ago, called “3 thoughts in that one voice.” In this brief poem Evie imagines cutting, but then describes the decision not to cut, and finally shows the strangeness that fills her after making that decision.
So, I hope you’ll recognize and celebrate the strength in the latest winner of the Pongo Poetry Prize. Following Evie’s poems, there are links to three great poems by other writers that received Honorable Mention. Cheers!

by Evie, age 16 

I can be as strong as concrete, a solid brick wall,
   like the ones that I have build to surround me.
Ready to lock myself within the walls, protected, and unhurt.

I can be as strong as the ocean's waves,
   that swallow me up whole.
Pay attention to my craving waves, the ones that come after you,
   not giving time to breathe.
I will overcome this fear.

I can be strong in ways you don't expect.
I can be as strong as the stone heart that I carry on my sleeve.
Able to stay strong and stable,
   through all the hurt that is thrown at me.

My strength can be gentle.
I can only be as strong as myself, my weakest link.
Ready to crack under all the pressure.

I can be strong and change the world.
I can.
And I will.

3 thoughts in that one voice 
by Evie, age 16 

the thought makes my skin tingle, my hands go numb, and my mind swim.

I can't control the hunger of the pain anymore.

while my mind and heart scream to stop and forget, my hand goes ahead thinking on its own, slicing and revealing my insides.

letting the red emerge from my flesh, hitting the floor, drop by drop.

the usual smile appears on my face. I don't know who I am anymore.


I reach for the steak knife, hiding in the nest of spoons.

the black handle is warm.

as I pull it free, the blade slices the air, dividing it into slivers.

I can see the shadow of my old self.

the girl I don't wanna be.

here stands a girl clutching a knife, with blood in the air, angry words piled in the corners, we are trained not to see this way of life.

the knife silently slithers its way back into the block with only a whisper.


and for one moment,

we are not failed tests, or broken hearts, or liars.

we are crayons and lunch boxes, and swinging so high our sneakers punch holes in the sky.

for one breath, everything is better.

then it all melts away.

Honorable Mention, January 2011 
Letter After a Time 
Captured in Hiding 
Lessons of Courage and Fear 

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