Juvenile justice being brought back to 'Berg classroom

As part of Dr. Sarah Lazzari’s “Juvenile Justice” course (CRM 362), Heidelberg students are participating in the Writers in Residence program.

Writers in Residence is an Ohio-based nonprofit organization that gives the youth in the juvenile justice system their own voice. It began as a student-run organization out of John Carroll University, which helped juveniles workshop their creative writing skills and form mentor-mentee bonds with college students.

Heidelberg’s students meet with youth in the juvenile justice system every Thursday as part of their “Juvenile Justice” curriculum. Heidelberg students Kendall Wright, Isaiah Bretz and Madison Leiser go to the Seneca County Youth Center to meet with the youth. Other youth come to campus through the Time to Invest (TTI) program, meeting with Jessica Voitko, Jordan Day, Raven Brant, Taylor Rooker and Katie Twinem. The co-founder and executive director of Writers in Residence, Zach Thomas, facilitates these workshops, where ’Berg students and juveniles break into small groups to write about and discuss a different prompt every week. From poems and short stories to deeper questions about self, these students slowly begin to share about themselves and their internal lives.

While some students are more quick to open up than others, the important part of the program is creating a safe space for whenever the kids decide to share. “I feel as if I can create a safe environment where both the Heidelberg students and the kiddos in TTI or the Youth Center feel comfortable to share honest thoughts and feelings,” Jessica explained. Through the continued support and respect of ’Berg students, these students are becoming more vulnerable and confident. “These workshops allow them to see that people are showing up and being there for them week after week and aren’t letting them down. They finally have that safe space and a place of belonging.”

Raven Brant has had a similar experience with the boys with whom he works. “I haven’t made deep connections with the students yet – I think that is because they are young males trying to put on a tough guy look or something like that. I would say that we have made a connection in a way that friends would, like talking about what they want to do in life, what they like, and things along those lines.” Raven isn’t deterred by these walls, however. “It is an opportunity to help kids in need of guidance. This program steers them away from the path they are heading and hopefully changes the way they see their future.”

While this connection cannot be beat, there’s something to be said for the practice of regular writing and visiting a college campus. “I have seen the residents in the program learn things about themselves that they may have never considered prior to our creative writing workshops,” Jordan shared. “There’s no wrong way of expressing ourselves. It’s a very open, welcoming and productive environment for someone to express and learn about themselves.” As they learn about themselves, these youth are learning more about their goals, and who they want to be. Although everyone’s background is different, Jordan noticed that even just connecting on a college campus like Heidelberg’s has an impact.

“For many of the youth, their time in Writers in Residence might be their first experience on a college campus. Being here shows the residents that college (or any other goal of theirs) is not out of the question for them just because of their past.” he said.

The Writers in Residence program is currently an Ohio only program. Taylor and Kendall believe that its reach deserves to go further. “Too often juveniles are ignored and pushed to the side. This program is a way for them to get their voices out there. To be heard,” Taylor said. 

Taylor has worked with two younger girls throughout her time with the program, who initially weren’t interested. By the end of the first session, and through Taylor sharing her own experiences, these two girls were excited to come back and share more about their lives and experiences. This immediate impact speaks for itself. “ I think this program can be beneficial in so many ways,” Taylor said. “These kids, typically, have no hope, and we have the ability to give them some hope.”

Kendall too knows the power that this program has – and its ability to break down the labels that these youth have had forced upon them. “If the juvenile justice system is truly for reform and rehabilitation, and for preventing the return of youth back into the system, then incorporating a program such as Writers in Residence is necessary,” Kendall said. She has been working with a student who was “larger than life” and eager to engage. She wanted to be known, and shared a lot in common with the others in her small group. She, like many of the residents participating in WIR, wants to be known while she grows. “This is a program that encourages youth to think beyond the situation they are in now and begin to think about what they want for themselves outside of a detention center,” Kendall summarized. “WIR is more than just writing prompts; in WIR, we want them to express themselves, set goals, dream big, and realize that they are not ‘bad kids’ -- they are just kids who just made a bad mistake.”

The impact of this program is not reserved for the kids who participate, nor the students helping them. These youth, in their own way, are receiving a taste of the Heidelberg family – and will feel that support moving forward. One of the residents who visited Heidelberg is graduating from the Time to Invest program. They returned to regular high school this week. Nervous for the transition, they brought in a vision board to share with the Heidelberg students, and spoke about the impact the program, and Heidelberg’s support, has had on them. On their board, they created pockets, which the ’Berg students filled with notes in case they found themselves struggling. With love, pride and distinction, the Heidelberg family wishes them luck as they return to high school.

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