"They're eating and chilling out while I'm reading to them," says Carolyn Brookbank, the adult leader of Welcome to the Table. "Then we talk about our day."
As an independent contractor for the Women Writing for (a) Change (WWFaC) Foundation, Brookbank leads the weekly writing group for at-risk female teens at Lighthouse Youth Services. She calls upon her WWFaC experience to create a welcoming atmosphere.
"There's no judgment," she says. "There are no grades. The one rule is that we respect each other's work and lives."
Brookbank combines a craft project such as a word collage or creating a mandala with some form of writing. One week it might be poetry, the next free writing.
"They're incredible girls that are in desperate situations who don't see themselves as victims," she says. "I think their spirit is absolutely incredible."
Describing the Lighthouse Youth center as "an incredibly supportive environment," Brookbank says her greatest challenge is developing "a quick community" in which the girls feel comfortable sharing themselves through their writing.
The participants in this writing program are in the midst of dealing with some kind of crisis.
They might be at Lighthouse, which provides residential care each day for more than 250 children, from three hours to 30 days. The average stay is three days, according to the after-school program coordinator, Karen Fessler of Project Connect.
Fessler manages Club C.A.K.E., an after-school program that's funded with a two-year Impact 100 Grant of $112,000. Her idea is to "remove barriers to education for children and youth who are experiencing homelessness."
"C.A.K.E. stands for Connecting Adolescence to Knowledge and Enrichment," Fessler says. "I want these kids to learn things that they're not learning in school and probably not learning in the environment in which they live. You're talking about kids who are in crisis. Many of them come from poverty, and when families -- parents, caretakers -- are focused strictly on meeting their basic needs, they're not focusing on a lot of other education opportunities."
In addition to a 45-minute tutoring component, the after-school programs are structured around a three-pronged approach: education, art and mental health. Fessler began developing activities based on the feedback she was getting from the kids. When she asked basic questions -- such as, "Where does water come from?" or "What happens to that garbage you just threw on the ground?" -- Fessler learned the kids couldn't respond.
"We've had Rumpke come in to talk about recycling and where does your garbage go," she says. "I'm trying to bring in a lot of other opportunities for kids to have learning experiences but take them outside the narrow world in which they tend to live."
A variety of programs are offered Monday through Thursday, ranging from Hip Hop dance classes and jump rope to video production and clay molding. Kids receive free bus tokens so they can return to the center for classes after their stays end.
Brookbank believes the impact Lighthouse has on kids makes a difference in their lives and hopes that more people from the community will get involved.
"Most of them are willing to do better if they have the guidance and political support," she says.
Project Connect will host an open house June 1 at the Carnegie Visual + Performing Arts Center to showcase the work of Lighthouse participants, including an exhibition of artwork, poetry readings and a video screening, workshops, games and classes for all ages. For more information, call Karen Fessler at 513-207-3498.
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