Pongo Project Journal

Sharing stories of our work with teens
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 

Dec 19
Celebrating Maggie

It would be easy to celebrate Maggie as the 25-year-old young professional she is, a stunning young woman with long brown hair, dedicated to her job, about to defend her Masters thesis, proud of her apartment and independent life.

(“Maggie” is a pseudonym, and some of the facts in this story have been changed to protect her anonymity.)

But I would like to celebrate the whole Maggie, and bring Maggie’s accomplished life together with her other life, the second life that she always kept secret from “good” people. Maggie would like that, too.

Maggie’s earliest memories, to age 7, are of being sexually abused by a brother who was 13 years older. After her parents’ divorce, she was neglected by a deeply troubled mother who kept a squalid house, left rotting food sitting out for Maggie (if she fed her at all), and openly engaged in sexual adventures. Then when Maggie objected to her mother’s behavior, she was kicked out of her house at 14 and afterward lived under bridges through adolescence, while she was alcoholic, anorexic, drug-addicted, and battered. She wintered in the apartment of a murderous and philandering boyfriend who was 11 years older.

Yet Maggie always went to school and always earned A’s. Her intellectual effort gave her purpose and self-esteem. Teachers were her nurturers. And Maggie measured her mental health by her ability to have at least five people in her life who didn’t know about her suffering.

And Maggie always sustained herself with an appreciation for the things in this world that are enduringly beautiful, like the flowing river beneath the bridge where she slept.

Ultimately, there were several events that helped Maggie make a significant change in her life at age 19. An intervention was scheduled at Maggie’s apartment to help her with her coke addiction, and no one showed up (not even the flighty friend who had arranged the intervention), except for Maggie’s abusive brother. Maggie’s abuser broke down that evening, beat himself bloody in a hysteria of guilt, and for the first time acknowledged what he had done. For the first time, Maggie could truly accept the reality of her hurt and feel sane.

About this time, at a vulnerable moment for Maggie, she was violently raped. Then she moved in with her father, who loved her, fed her, played cards with her, and made sure that she was always warm. Maggie completed college at this time, while she battled addiction and eating disorders.

Today, Maggie knows the legacy of her life. She is convinced that she will never have children, for example. But Maggie also doesn’t want anyone to feel sorry for her or think she is a sad person. In her intellectual way, she describes human emotions as existing along a continuum from -10 to 10. The worst pain, the -10, is felt equally by everyone. But if life pushes you, if you feel your -10 from child abuse, for example, then nothing you experience will ever be that bad again.

And when life pushes you, when you feel a -10 from child abuse, for example, then the joy that you feel, the +10, is correspondingly greater. Maggie thinks that when she runs on the beach with her dog that no one is happier than she…

I began by describing Maggie’s accomplished life today, as an independent working woman and student. But isn’t the whole Maggie, to include the life in which she suffered, an even more remarkable person?

In a future article about Maggie, I’d like to discuss the nature and consequences of secrecy in her life.

Two of Maggie’s poems are enclosed below: “Drugs” from the time her mother kicked her out when Maggie was 14, and “Petals on the Floor” from the time her brother admitted his guilt when Maggie was 19.

Maggie, age 14 

Because you never taught me that I was supposed to love myself.

Because you are jealous of me, your child, for every accomplishment I’ve fought for.

Because I want to show you that I am as low as you are. Then maybe we’d have something to talk about.

Because you abuse me with no shame.

Because self-mutilation has been glorified so many times by your lips. It is the only thing worthy of your attention.

Because you never expected any more of me.

Because I am definitely your child.

Because the people that you care about are the people that are more f***ed up than you.

Because I don’t know how to heal the pain you bestowed upon me.

Because you never wanted me to amount to more than you are.

Because I am confused and young and you offer me no guidance.

Because you taught me how to.

Because I see how you don’t have to care about anything while you’re high.

Because I want to be just like you, mother—painless, soulless.

Because maybe hurting myself will hurt you too.

Because this is the way you planned it.

Because if I hit rock bottom, I don’t have to fall in panic anymore.

Because I want you to love me.

Petals On the Floor 
Maggie, age 19

Tearing each petal from its origin
…He loves me, he loves me not…
shooting pain, doubt, a hitchhiker
from the back of my eyes, down.
destination: The Achilles Tendon

Anxious now. No sleep, only to feel
within my once shallow blue waters,
an unclean, terrifying depth. I sink in.
fear between his touch, my skin.

Hurt is warm, slow, blazing red.
the poisoned berry in starvation
and, I, the starving child. the juice drips
dangerously, anxiously, slowly from my lip

I’m walking now,
my left eye a clouded mirror, my right
an antiquated magnifying glass
the path, undoubtedly, unclear

He holds me then, dripping with false apology
his desperation, his relief, onto me
the weight of his burden, his hate.
…He hates me, he hates me not…

As I pull the last petal, hate
and love forgotten. I think.
this stem in my hand, naked, humiliated
the only fact undoubted:
this wildflower is in pieces on the floor.

Dec 06
Warm Smiles in Winter

When I planned my last writing workshop at Mission Creek Corrections Center, it was just before Thanksgiving, and I was feeling particularly badly for the women. With budget cutbacks the facility is losing its only two recreation staff. Meanwhile the population has doubled to around 300 women. Holidays are always a difficult time.

As many of you understand, the lives of incarcerated women have included great suffering, including childhood sexual abuse and domestic battering, including drug addiction, including regrets about having let down their children.

But I planned a writing workshop on love, especially on the complicated nature of love. The poems I brought to discuss included Bessie Smith lyrics, “Dirty No Gooder Blues.” We did the Pongo writing activity “Love, Sometimes” (created by Pongo leader Ann Teplick).

In particular, I brought a poem by Hafiz called “With That Moon Language.” In this poem Hafiz says that we’re all walking around making a silent appeal to “Love me,” afraid to say the words aloud because people might think we’re weird. But ultimately we’re left with a choice. We can walk out today and join the throng… Or we can walk out and say the words that everyone is so desperately longing to hear.

The poets and I had a good discussion and a good time in our workshop. As usual the women asked me to distribute my backup writing activities as homework. Those of you who have followed Pongo know that I have a high regard for the emotional depth of people who have led difficult lives. At the end of the session, I said to everyone, “Spread the love!”

I packed up my materials and was escorted out of the prison. Just before leaving I walked through a common area where five women were huddled around a table. One woman was sprawled across the table top to hear better. The staff person made a comment to the sprawler, and the women looked up.

It turned out the woman at the center of the group had been in my workshop. She saw me, flashed a huge smile, and said, “I’m reading them my poetry!” Then everyone smiled.

Spread the love!

Nov 23
Very Happy News!

At a banquet last Thursday at the Westin Hotel in Seattle, I was named a Microsoft Integral Fellow. Pongo will receive a $25K financial award and has the promise of significant support from the Microsoft Alumni Foundation and from my fellow Microsoft alumni in the coming year. The evening could not have been more happy and humbling for me. Alumni committee members not only expressed their personal appreciation for Pongo, but they conveyed the appreciation of Tom Brokaw and the other judges. Bill and Melinda Gates presented me with a medal. In accepting the award I had the chance to talk to 450 people about the difficult lives of Pongo teens, and could also explain how out of this darkness there can be triumph and joy. As I was leaving at the end of the night, one Microsoft person called out, "We're proud of you." My former colleagues are great!

One of the first benefits I've received from the Microsoft Alumni Foundation is that a very artful video was made about Pongo, set in juvenile detention. Please check it out (only two minutes!). Here's the link


It was an honor to stand with my fellow award nominees, finalists, and recipients. My remarks at the banquet are enclosed, below...

Remarks to the Microsoft Alumni Association 
Richard Gold
November 18, 2010

I’d like to thank the Microsoft Alumni Foundation for naming me a Microsoft Integral Fellow. And I’d like to express my appreciation to Bill and Melinda Gates and to the many of you in this audience who are already doing so much to change our world. Thank you. I am humbled to be with you tonight.

I’d like to share a thought with those of you who will soon be entering the world of nonprofits and making your own contributions – My thought is that out of darkness can come triumph and joy.

In the case of the Pongo youth, they have terrible challenges that isolate them. Traumas at an early age can overwhelm young people and leave them fragmented and confused. Trying to understand your life under these circumstances is like trying to look into your own eyes without a mirror. And the abuse these youth suffer is not just a hit, it is coercive. The victims are blamed for their victimization. For children who don’t receive the love they need, they feel a deep burden of shame. And then there is the social stigma that surrounds trauma and tragedy.

But when Pongo authors write about their feelings, and someone is listening, they are changed. They make a cognitive shift, and come to understand that “This is who I am” and “I am not alone.” It is a wonderful moment to share. The other Pongo volunteers and I know that we receive more than we give in this work.

So to those of you who are about to make your efforts to change the world, I’m happy for the opportunities you’ll have to bring triumph and joy out of darkness. You have my best wishes! Please contact me if you’d like my support.

Thank you.

Oct 30
Watching Her and Her

With today’s journal, I’d like to announce the latest winner of the Pongo Poetry Prize. In “Watching Her” you’ll hear the voice of a strong young woman. It makes me think about the resilience that we see all the time through our Pongo work.

The experiences of abused and neglected youth are terrible when you read about them in the teens’ Pongo poetry, but I always encourage readers to think beyond the sad content - to celebrate the resilience it takes to write and heal. Writing exposes a wound to light and air. After they write, the Pongo teens are proud, feel capable, and gain control in their lives. Instead of being merely reactive to pain, a person who writes can integrate that painful experience into a multi-faceted and cognizant personality. There is still sadness, and sometimes struggle, but a person’s losses can be mourned and a future envisioned.

And complementing the role of writing itself is the ability to be heard, which breaks down the walls of isolation. At Pongo we sit with our authors and listen to their stories as an important part of what we do. An awful reality of abuse and neglect is that the hurt often contains terror, blame, coercion, control, guilt, and helplessness. Abuse and neglect are a pointed injury to a person’s soul. And abuse and neglect throw their victims into terrible isolation. Yet we can help people to heal when we’re strong enough to listen to their stories and to accompany them out of their solitude.

So please read “Watching Her” and watch the author, too. Celebrate the latest winner of the Pongo Poetry Prize. Following the winning poem, there are links to three great poems that received Honorable Mention. Cheers!

Watching Her
by a young woman, age 16 

i've watched my mother all of my life

i watched her let my father beat her till her skull broke open and bled across the hardwood floor

i watched her recover from that incident, return to my father, and become pregnant with yet another child whom she'd always ignore

i watched her struggle in chaos and self punishment while she filled her 135lb body with vodka, beer, and rum

i watched her get so angry at my older sister that she'd beat her till her fragile 98lb body was forced to become numb

i watched my mother live the life of an addict, an abuser, and a manipulator

i watched her try and hide these things that she'd always reveal until the day i walked down the street and watched her do something she couldn't conceal

i watched my mother do these things till the day she had successfully pushed everything, including her children, out of her life

i watched her unconsciously toss and turn in a dirty sleeping bag on the rainy seattle sidewalk of lake city way

yes, i watched my mother all of my life
but sixteen years into watching i choose to no longer watch her strife

Honorable Mention, October 2010
My Best Friend Is in Love

Sep 29
Richard is Honored!

Pongo Friends, I have some wonderful news! I have been selected as a finalist for the 2010 Integral Fellows Awards Program of the Microsoft Alumni Foundation. I am posting the press release below and including links to the impressive programs of the other four finalists...

Microsoft Alumni Foundation announces 2010 Integral Fellows Awards Program Finalists 

Microsoft Alumni give back with talent and resources around the world 

BELLEVUE, Washington – September 21, 2010 - The Microsoft Alumni Foundation announced today the five finalists for the 2010 Integral Fellows Awards Program.  A cornerstone of the Foundation, the Integral Fellows Awards Program recognizes Microsoft alumni who have dedicated their lives to creating something extraordinary to help address challenges around the world.   The five finalists were selected from nominations put forward from among over 150 nonprofit organizations started by Microsoft alumni, and the thousands of alumni doing philanthropic work globally.

Award winners will be recognized by Bill and Melinda Gates at the Microsoft Alumni Foundation Celebration on November 18, 2010 in Seattle.  The winners will each receive a $25,000 unrestricted grant for their nonprofit organization, as well as support from their fellow alumni to help continue in their efforts to leverage resources and scale solutions for their initiatives.

The five finalists are:

The Microsoft Alumni Foundation brings together Microsoft alumni to positively affect the world’s challenges.  “We’ve been fortunate to play a significant part in the information revolution. Now we have a chance to change the world in a different way.  Microsoft alumni are making it happen every day in our local communities and around the world,” said Jeff Raikes, chairman of the board of the Microsoft Alumni Foundation.  "Some very unique individuals were nominated by their peers as Integral Fellows for their work deeply rooted in service and making a difference in people’s everyday lives. Today, I am honored to announce these five finalists.  On November 18th, Bill and Melinda Gates and over 400 fellow Microsoft alumni will gather to announce the final winners and celebrate all the nominees."

The nonprofit organizations being recognized include: 

  • Grameen Foundation - helps the world’s poorest, especially women, improve their lives and escape poverty through access to information, capital and viable business opportunities using microfinance and technology.
  • Pongo Publishing - helps abused and neglected youth to heal by writing poetry, with Pongo Teen Writing projects in homeless shelters, juvenile detention centers, and psychiatric hospitals.
  • Foster Care Justice Alliance – defending the rights of children in out-of-home care, by advocating for changes in society and law, and by providing support to foster kids, foster families and relative caregivers.
  • Literacy Bridge – connects poor, rural communities with the vital knowledge they need to improve their lives by providing the world’s most affordable and durable audio device, designed specifically for people who cannot read and who live without electricity.
  • NetHope - a collaboration of 30+ international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that facilitates public-private partnerships with major technology companies, foundations and governments, enabling NGOs to better leverage their technology investments to improve the delivery of aid in the developing world.

“The Foundation is honored to have such a great panel of esteemed judges working closely with us to recognize Microsoft alumni and their nonprofit organizations,” said Sharon Maghie, secretary of the board of directors, and chair of the Integral Fellows Committee.  The panel of judges includes: 

  • Tom Brokaw, journalist and author
  • Bill Drayton, chair and CEO, Ashoka
  • William H. Gates Sr., co-chair, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
  • Pierre Omidyar, founding partner, Omidyar Network and founder and chairman, eBay Inc.
  • Judith Rodin, president, Rockefeller Foundation
  • Thomas J. Tierney, chairman and co-founder, Bridgespan Group

Rigorous evaluation of the finalists included achievements that embody the values of the Microsoft Alumni Foundation, which are: innovation; entrepreneurship; effectiveness; collaboration and integrity.  Additional criteria in selecting the winners included: the ability to create something extraordinary out of limited resources; selflessness; passion; smarts; need; and, scalability.

About the Foundation:  The Microsoft Alumni Foundation was established to catalyze the collective power of the Microsoft alumni family and leverage our resources on innovative, scalable and transformative solutions to our world’s challenges. Launched in 2007, the Foundation is a 501(c)(3) public nonprofit organization with its worldwide headquarters based in Bellevue, Washington, USA. Board members include: Jeff Raikes (chair); Chuck Hirsch (president); Scott Oki (co-founder and vice president); Paul Shoemaker (treasurer); Tony Audino (co-founder); Sharon Maghie (co-founder and secretary) and Brad Smith (Microsoft representative).

Note to editors:  If you are interested in viewing additional information on the Microsoft Alumni Foundation, please visit http://www.microsoftalumni.org/.

For additional assistance please contact:
Pamela Portin, Pamela Portin Consulting, LLC.
Mobile: 206-484-2644 Email: pamela@pamelaportin.com

Aug 27
The Quieter We Become

The Quieter We Become, the More We Are Able to Hear:
Writing with Teens in a Psychiatric Hospital

by Ann Teplick, Pongo project leader

Each time my meditation teacher suggested that we “hold” our pain, rather than cling to it or push it away, I wanted to do something un-Buddha like. Like scream, or crack a few obscene jokes, or belt out the lyrics of a Jim Morrison song, where torment seeps like a bruised and mucked-up fruit. Shake up the hushed room.

It took me years to wrap my head around this concept of being gentle with myself, less obsessive. To trust that in hard times, I would not suffocate. And though I’m far from100%, I’ve come a long way. The effort is constant. I slack, and I’m back in the wilds of anxiety—heart palpitations, wet like I have just walked out of the sea, breathing that is cockeyed, visions of train wrecks and crimson.

And then, one day, the epiphany—

It’s 6:45 a.m. on a beach in Seattle, foggy and damp, my hair wet and strung into curls. A boat horn blares, a heron strolls through the foam of a wave, driftwood and seaweed scatter across the sand. I am perched on a wet-salted rock, crying, cursing, trying to “hold” the unholdable— an indelible personal pain—one hell of a fire, like I have been blowtorched.

When out of nowhere, a barrage of butterflies light upon me—one on my thumb, one on my knee, one on my shoulder, the zipper of my fleece jacket. Who knows how many are on my hood. They are the size of my fist, with wings, veined and coppery, that close and open in slow motion. And they do not fly away, but cocoon me in stillness. The quieter I become, the more I am able to hear.

On Mondays, from October to March, four colleagues and I write poetry with teens at Firwood secondary school, in Lakewood, Washington. Forty-five miles south of Seattle, the school is one of many buildings on the campus of Western State Hospital, a 265-acre psychiatric facility. Western is wooded with trees, wildflowers, owls, eagles, and deer. Yes, butterflies, too. The teens live a stone’s throw away in cottages at the Child Study and Treatment Center (CSTC), the only state run and state operated psychiatric hospital for children in Washington. CSTC serves youth ages 6-17 in two primary programs—Inpatient Services, for youth who cannot be served in a less-restrictive environment, and Forensic Services, a program that conducts mental health evaluations for the Juvenile Court System of Washington State.

We walk into Firwood school at lunchtime, to the aroma of Mac and cheese, sloppy Joes, chips and salsa. The environment is brightly lit and cheerful, with polished floors, art on the walls, and friendly faces of adults and teens, which is not to say there is never a scuffle. We sign in at the reception desk and head to the computer room, high-five a few students we pass in the hall. “Can I write poetry, today?” “How about me? I didn’t get to write last week!” “I’ve got a cool poem back in my room, can I go fetch it?”

My colleagues and I work with The Pongo Teen Writing Project (www.pongoteenwriting.org), a volunteer non-profit founded (in 1992) and run by writer Richard Gold. Gold is a compassionate man with a huge heart. He is dedicated to writing with youth who lead difficult lives. In the mid 1970’s, while a graduate student of creative writing in San Francisco, Gold volunteered with teens at a special-needs school,  many of whom were patients at an adolescent psychiatric clinic. He is anchored in the belief that when we write about life’s challenges—from hardship to distress to trauma and grief—we can better understand ourselves and take better control of our lives.

I met Richard Gold ten years ago at a summer art festival in Seattle. While manning the Pongo booth, he introduced me to poems from the teen collections on display. They were very difficult to read. Many, excruciating. Stories of alcohol and drug addiction, rage, despair, depression, suicide, physical and sexual abuse, abandonment, life on the streets, crime, violent deaths of family, friends and pets. The ravages of guilt.

Death Letter

Dear Baby Girl,

I never got to say goodbye to you. I was in JRA. I know how you died: shot in the neck by a sniper. You died in my mom’s arms. Before you died you walked to the house and up to her and made her follow you to your bed. That’s when my mom saw the blood and she cradled you. Then you died.

He was just a crazy guy next door, my dad’s friend’s friend because you trespassed just once onto his property. I see an animal on my property, I better just shoot her. He had anger inside that he couldn’t handle, he had mental problems just like me.

I know what I did to you was wrong. What I did to you was hit you, stuck you with needles and basically abused you. I did it because I had no other way to handle my rage. I felt like I should take it out on other species. And you were one of them. I’m sorry.

I remember that every time you went off our property you wouldn’t listen to my mom but you’d listen to me.

I remember that you slept in my bed every night, every time I was sad or depressed. It really felt like you were my real sister.

I remember that you protected me whenever I was scared. I also remember that you protected me from strangers that came to our door—you would growl and bark, I would open the door and you would chase after them.

You made me feel safe and loved.

I want to say goodbye now, but not forever: please take care of your sisters and grandpa Peter, but especially yourself. I hope you have a good time in heaven with Jesus and God. Take care of them.


Love always and forever,

Sad Puppy

As a writer, raised with an abundance of love, I cannot create these scenarios. But writing is my life, and I well know its power to pull me through the smack of tough times.

I have been working with Richard Gold and the Pongo Teen Writing Project for eight years—five, in King County juvenile detention (Seattle), three of which I served as project lead; and for the last three years, as project lead at CSTC. The experience has altered me—not only the honor of working with young people who live with challenges many of us cannot fathom, but the fact that I am learning how to listen—really listen—with no interruptions, judgments, pity, or verbal attempts to alleviate suffering. My belief in story, and the importance of telling our stories, has been reinforced a thousand fold. Our words matter, and the world desperately needs them.

Since 2000, Pongo has reached out to over 4,000 teen writers in juvenile detention, psychiatric hospitals, juvenile rehab facilities, LGBTQ centers, and homeless shelters. King County juvenile detention and CSTC are Pongo’s pillar sites. Pongo has published 12 anthologies of teen poetry, most of which are given away to the authors.

The teens we write with at CSTC have severe emotional, behavioral, and thought disorders. Their lives are delicate, layered and complex. We cannot fix this, but we can share our love for poetry and the tools for writing, so that they can find ways to express emotions and experiences that are often a 10+ on the Richter scale. When they do, their sense of relief, satisfaction, and greater self-respect is palpable. The process is stunning and humbling.


He controls me.
He wants me to want more, more.
He’ll make your friends and family disappear.
He’ll scream in your ear.
He’ll make you be a thief.
The high will make you want to have sex
And to be loved because nobody else will love you back.
He doesn’t love you.
He just owns you.
First try, you don’t want him.
Second, he becomes you.
Third, you won’t know yourself anymore.
There is no way to stop him.
You are gone.

So, what does our day look like?

Before we meet with the teens, my colleagues and I gather for an hour to share poems we have discovered and poems we have written. We devise writing activities to accompany many of our personal pieces, and explore themes such as family, love, heartbreak, the masks we wear, forgiveness, gratitude, resilience, and survival. We discuss who to invite to write that day, with a focus on those who have not written with us in a while, or perhaps ever. We especially seek teens who have a difficult time expressing themselves. Last year, we worked with a total of thirty young writers. The numbers vary each year, as does the level of functioning.

Once the teens arrive, we begin with an Opening Circle. We introduce (or reintroduce) Pongo, and follow with a conversation about poetry and why write it. I love that poetry is succinct, says the most with the least, and is the perfect building block for all writing—perfect to experiment with metaphor and simile, repetition and word play, sound play, rhythm and rhyme. Symbol. Poetry is a nugget, and has the potential to be a powerhouse. It serves us well at Firwood school, where our sessions with the teens are brief.

We believe honesty is one of the most important qualities of good writing, and we share this at our Opening Circle. We encourage everyone to write from the heart about who they are as a person. We distribute Pongo anthologies and invite the teens to thumb for a poem that hooks them, one they might want to read to the group. The teens connect with poems they relate to, those that express loneliness, alienation, anger, humiliation, abuse, and abandonment, to name a few. Often, this identification is a comfort.

Next, we pair up with the teens. They can work on a poem by themselves, and ask for assistance, if they need it, or they can work directly with us. If they choose the latter, we begin an informal chat. We ask them how they are doing. How is their day going? High points? Low points? What might they like to write about? Often, there are issues pressing, such as an argument with staff or a friend, a frustration at school, a vicious rumor circulating about them, a longing for family, or a not-so-positive family visit. They speak, and we type, guiding them to infuse their work with images, details, and repetition to underscore importance.

Rolling Down on Me

I am very sad.
I feel like breaking down –
Like a bridge collapsing
Due to holding on to so many barriers,
Keeping so many cars from falling
Into the river below.
My dad is a car.
I’ve been run over so many times.
Yet I feel that he’s been run over, too.
I’d like to turn the anger around.
I wish we could have been
A bridge for each other.
My dad is in prison for 23 years.
My sisters and my family are cars
On the bridge.
I want to keep them from being like my dad.
They’re struggling.
My little sisters are adopted,
My older brother has a guardian,
My other brother is in foster care,
And my other brother is in a group home.
I am a bridge.
I want to keep everyone safe
And be strong for them,
But I’m not doing well myself.
I wish I could be there for them,
But instead I’m in here.
I am a bridge that has cracks in it –
The cracks in my heart.

If ideas for writing are hard to come by, we might offer a prompt, such as writing about a close friend, someone they trust. Or writing about something funny that’s happened to them. Perhaps, the best gift they’ve ever received, material or other. We might ask, what makes them happy? What makes them sad? What gives them hope? And we build from there. Sometimes the words spill and sometimes they don’t. We might suggest various structures, such as the wonderful and user-friendly List poem. For example, a list of “wishes,” or “10 Things I Like About Myself,” or “Things That Drive Me Crazy.” Perhaps a list of good memories, and not-so-good memories. Or we might improvise a poetic structure, such as “My guilt (anger/frustration, etc.) surprises me when. . . is predictable when. . . helps me when. . .hurts me when. . . is like… (simile)."

The teens come to us with many levels of writing experience. Some are masters of hip hop and rap. Some are meticulous and devoted to end-rhyme. Some have journaled in the past. Others have seldom written. Others still, may be wary of poetry and throw us the Stink Eye. Initially, that is. We aim for a positive experience, and according to our surveys, we continue to meet our goal.

Each session ends with a Closing Circle, where the teens read the poems they have written. They receive compliments, applause, and acknowledgment for their creativity and bravery. I believe everyone leaves the room taller, prouder, and stronger.

Years ago, when I first began this work, it was not uncommon for me to excuse myself to find refuge in a bathroom stall where I could meltdown in private. I’d fall apart on the drive home. I’d duke it out, box with insomnia, because of the sights, sounds, smells and tastes that the teens had articulated. Our inhumanity to others and our inhumanity to ourselves haunts me. Yet, this is where I want to be—rooting for the voices that are too often ignored, denied, shunned and walked away from. It is here that I have no choice but to be present and compassionate.

They Won't Stop

I hear them
They hear me
They tell me to kill people
My mom
My aunt
My brother
My friends
And staff
I tell them to shut the fuck up
But they don’t
They’re in my head
And they won’t be quiet
I pray and plead for them to but
I’ve learned that don’t work
I’ve been hearing them for 10 years and
It makes me sick to think about that
I’ve been on meds that make me
And that make me suicidal
I’m on a medication that makes me feel angry all the time
I tell doctors and staff but they don’t care
That’s the truth
I hear voices and I tell people
No one cares
Not staff, friends, doctors
Or me.
I pace and I get punished
I have schizophrenia and no one wants to help me
This makes me feel anger, pain, shame
And lonely
I’ve been feeling lonely for 10 years
And I feel it will never go away
That makes them louder
And I can’t stop it
That’s the saddest thing ever:
I hallucinate and I can’t stop it
Not now.

Mental illness is not a pretty picture. I believe at certain times in our lives, we may question the thin line that keeps us on one side, and how easy it would be to slide to the other. We are at a constant face-off with ourselves and life’s fragility.

The teens we work with at CSTC are beautiful young people. They are truth tellers, fearless in many ways, and many, with unsinkable spirits. They inspire and instill gratitude, for the simple privilege of sitting side by side with them while they write their lives. And I will continue to hold their pain like a butterfly—a Monarch, maybe, or a Lupine Blue. This, is the ultimate grace.

[This essay was originally published in Hunger Mountain, journal of The Vermont College of Fine Arts]

Jul 26
Approaching the Trauma, Not the Crime

by Alex Russell

This year, while volunteering with Pongo in Seattle Juvenile Detention, it seemed like every other night on the news there were stories about kids doing terrible things. Some boys attacked a bus driver at night when she wouldn’t let them off through the back door. A group of girls made national headlines when a video showed them beating another girl in a downtown transit station. When I sat down with a kid to write poems, I hoped he or she wasn’t involved with anything I’d seen on the news the night before.

As Pongo volunteers, we are there to serve kids, not to judge them. Even so, the habit of judging is persistent and reflexive. I was a victim of violent crime in 1998. I was 19 at the time, shot in the neck by a guy who couldn’t have been much older than I was. I thought the experience gave me a window into the lives of those who had also experienced extreme violence. It also predisposed me to judging kids who had committed violence against others. I volunteered with Pongo to help kids no matter where they came from, no matter what they had done. I didn’t think I had to worry about my own judgments.

Toward the end of the year I was facilitating a group poem with a teen I’ll call John and one other boy. In the process of digging for lines, John mentioned how he was on CNN for why he was in Detention. Then things changed. Judgment is a persistent habit. It a filter to help us understand the world around us, and it’s something that happens involuntarily. As soon as I knew what John was talking about I couldn’t help feeling suddenly withdrawn. John’s demeanor seemed to change as well, but unrelated to what anyone else said or did. It was as if he realized immediately what it meant to become “that criminal on TV” instead of just John, a kid trying to get through a poem.

John was likely the same as every other kid I worked with, someone who’s experienced major emotional traumas. At our best as Pongo volunteers, we help kids externalize traumas most of them bury in order to survive. When the traumas are on paper, they lose a lot of their power. My fellow mentor Eli Hastings described it as turning shame into pride: by writing poems, kids turn traumatic memories they are ashamed of into works of art they are proud of. Because of this, it only makes sense to approach the trauma and not the crime, the seismic skip that is a symptom of that trauma. Approaching the trauma is the only way for anyone to heal.

When I went to drop off his poems, John was the same as every other kid I worked with last year. He was happy to see me and started reading his poems as soon as I slipped them under the door. Everything was as if the session had gone perfectly. It made me think that maybe I wasn’t the failure I thought I had been. More than anything, it reminded me that the process of recovering from trauma is complicated and imperfect, and never really over. The symptoms can change over time, whether they begin with actions that find us imprisoned, or with unsettling judgments against others. Both share the same root causes, but if I learned anything as a Pongo volunteer it’s that there is always a way to move forward.

Jul 15
Love Is a Useless Puppy

Sometimes we think that… We can make someone love us if only we love them enough, if only we give them more and more power over us, if only we measure our love by how much we hurt. This is the poetry of heartache. And this is my personal reading of the poetry that follows, the latest winner of the Pongo Poetry Prize. (Following the winning poem, there are links to three great poems that received Honorable Mention.)

What It Really Is
by a young woman, age 16


I am a lonely, lost pit-bull.
Confused, hurt,
And nowhere to go.
Last time I saw you, we were at the house.
All I could smell - weed.
All I could see - cocaine.
You gave me so much attention!
This gave me a sweet taste in my mouth.
Then you left and haven't come back.
It's been over three months,
I'm mad,
I have rage and anger.
I'm also alone and hurt.
The only thing you'll ever hear from me is whining.
Other than that I'm silent.
It's because I miss you.
I'm not anything without you.
I am a lonely, lost pit-bull -
Confused, hurt, and have nowhere to go.

What It Really Is

All I can hear is screaming.
That's all I can ever hear.
It never stops.
All I can see is fist and blood.
That's all I ever feel.
You threw me out,
Beat me, and made me feel useless.
You smell like sweat and cologne.
When you hit me, I taste blood.
I didn't do anything.
So why did you do this to me?

You Said

You always said you loved me
And that you would never leave me.
You said those exact words
Every day.
You said you wouldn't hurt me,
But the thing is you treated me like an animal -
That's not me!
Even though you said what you said,
You still left me.
Even if you meant what you said,
You still hurt me.
When you said you really didn't love me,
And you did what you did,
You put silence in my mind.
So now I don't have anything else to say,
You gave me away like a useless little puppy.
Now, all I can see is you.
All I can smell is you.
All I can hear is your voice.
The useless puppy is looking for you.

Honorable Mention, July 2010
Just Imagine
Romantic Rain

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