If you had 15 minutes to address the world, what would you say?
Author Karen Hunt presented the premise to a group of students in Van Nuys some years back. One girl’s response changed Hunt’s life.
“Well, there’s a shoe sale at Nordstrom, and we all need shoes, so we should go out and buy some. And, oh yeah, there’s all these people starving in the world, and we should feed them, I guess,” the girl said.
After hearing that, Hunt, who has written 21 children’s books, decided to spend time with unfortunate youth and developed the idea for a writing class at Juvenile Hall.
In 1999, she launched InsideOUT Writers to encourage and teach writing to youths incarcerated at Juvenile Halls in Sylmar, Downey and Central Los Angeles.
More than 100 youths are currently in the program, which meets twice a week for two hours. Some of their work has been collected in a book, “What We See,” published by the Alethos Foundation of Calabasas.
One enthusiastic participant, a Pacoima teenager held at the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar who is soon to be transferred to an adult facility, lamented having to leave the writing program behind.
“I really like this class and I’m going to miss it, but I’m going to keep on writing wherever they send me,” said convicted kidnapper Jose de la Torre, 18, who will be sent to state prison or the California Youth Authority when he is formally sentenced on Aug. 5. “The writing keeps me busy, keeps me out of trouble. I could be gang-banging in here.”
On a recent Friday evening, 12 young people--charged or convicted of crimes ranging from carjacking to murder--gathered in a semicircle in a gymnasium to write and read and occasionally take in some advice from Hunt and another teacher, Marilyn Morton.
When asked individually about the program, 11 of the 12 began their review identically: “It’s cool.”
One writer, a 17-year-old Athens Park boy accused of murder, read an essay about growing up in a gang-infested South Los Angeles neighborhood.
“Why I had to live in a place like that, I don’t know,” he read loudly, his face staring down hard at his paper. “I tried to avoid it, but it was hard. They just kept coming and coming. I told my mom about it, but we didn’t have enough money to move, so I started to go around the other way.”
The young man’s mother, Shelly Warren, said that even though he is possibly facing life in prison, her son often talks about his writing.
“I think it’s great for him,” she said. “I’m glad he’s in that program. I’m behind him 100%.”
Hunt said that a nun, Sister Janet Harris, a social worker who deals with gang members, initially introduced her to Juvenile Hall, which inspired her to create the program.
“I was raised to make a difference,” said Hunt, 46, whose pen name is Karen Mezek Leimert. “I wanted to get them interested for themselves, get them excited about what they value.”
What the youths wrote surprised her.
“I was blown away hearing about these girls who looked so tough that I’d be horrified if I passed them on the street. But they had these amazing stories,” said Hunt, who has assembled a group of professional writers to volunteer their services for the program. One is John Horn, who covers the motion picture industry for Newsweek magazine.
“What the program tries to do is impose a little form and structure as a means of expression,” said Horn, who has been teaching in the program for two months.
Horn said he was hooked after sitting in on a Central Juvenile Hall class taught by a friend.
“These kids have generally had very few adult figures that have helped them without judging or punishing them,” said Horn, adding that the program has no grades or tests.
“Some of the writing is advanced and well thought out, but all of it is extremely heartfelt. These are kids who have gone through more bad times than many adults. If they can tap into the bad experiences, they will have a lot to say.”