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Juvenile center encourages budding poets, artists

Tuesday, June 20, 2006
Associated Press

CHICAGO - A cultural renaissance is taking shape amid the brick walls that keep youths from venturing outside Cook County's juvenile temporary detention center.
To compensate for policies that ban the use of textbooks, writing utensils and other objects in living units, educators at the center try to provide their students with as much extracurricular instruction as possible. One popular program encourages incarcerated youths, who often arrive at the detention center with learning disabilities and a negative self-image, to express themselves as poets, artists and musicians.
"When one girl is writing an autobiography, all of a sudden a whole bunch of girls go, 'Oh, I want to write an autobiography,'" said Amanda Klonsky, a program coordinator at the detention center's school. "And now, I have students who have written 50- or 60-page-long life stories, which is pretty impressive."
The privately funded Literacy and Creative Media Program publishes a gritty annual anthology written entirely by the youths at the detention center.
The writing in the 2005 edition of "Means of Survival" reflects the many obstacles they have faced in their short lives. Many have struggled with poverty, parental abandonment and child abuse.
One poem entitled "Rape" begins with the following lines: "Kidnapped, dragged into a dark place. Yellin' screamin, trying my best to escape."
There are also moments of tenderness.
"I wish I have a son one day. So at night, I can look in his room and smile," reads another entry titled "My Wish."
The youths find solace in the writing process, Klonsky said.
"For a student who's been told, 'You'll never amount to anything' or 'You're just going straight to jail,' ... to be told, 'Actually, you're a published writer, and what you have to say matters to us,' that's powerful medicine and can really transform a kid," Klonsky said.
The Cook County youths are also expressing themselves over hip-hop beats in a unique music program.
A small room at the detention center serves as a makeshift recording studio. While quietly bobbing their heads, kids recite lyrics into headsets connected to dusty, worn computers. State-of-the-art software layers the lyrics over syncopated beats.
Ryan Keesling, the coordinator of the music program, said many of the youths have found their muse at the studio and are on their way to becoming prolific songwriters.
"It has kicked off a serious amount of writing," Keesling said.

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