Guest Blog by Program Director, Steve Handoyo
Looking over a scene of mirth, creativity, and festivity, memories of a wondrous and humbling year spun a carousel in my mind.
A couple weeks ago, YourWords STL had our first official event, Wine and Words, at the delicious Robust Wine Bar. Wine and Words was a celebration of the extraordinary work of the tutors, a window into our workshops for prospective tutors, and a moment for us all to become students again during a professional development seminar by local artist, Maria Ojascastro.
Coming home to St. Louis for the holidays one year ago, the flames of Ferguson had died down, but the stinging embers were still floating just out of view for many of us. I did not look forward to the St. Louis I perceived would greet me, but one pivotal conversation would change my life. Speaking to Fr Steve Giljum, whom I’m proud to call a brother-in-law through his younger brother Joseph, I heard a man bursting with stories of proud young men in North St. Louis. Under siege on all sides, hardened children really, they revealed such depths of love and intelligence to those that gained their trust.
Wine and Words was my first opportunity to meet most of the tutors, as I live in Chicago and only get to read about the workshops on this blog page. I was humbled by their passion and generosity, as I learned about the tutors’ rich and frenzied lives outside of the workshops. From reserves of time and energy I can’t comprehend, these tutors happily provide consistency and rapt attention to young people who have been given such meager portions.
Naturally I was inspired by Fr. Steve’s stories of how energized the young men in his parish were by such simple things as mingling with the Town and Country St. Louisans that engaged them at a holiday fundraising party. They were hungry for tutoring so they could apply for scholarships. And I was devastated by the stories he told of youthful mistakes that led not to groundings but to incarceration. Without any obvious way to help, I could only think of writing a check. Clearly, this would be a gesture more for me than them.
Through Maria’s direction, we were able to use books as a canvas to create poetry that was literally lifted off the page. With tape, exacto knives, markers, and the sacrifice of our books, and employing black-out poetry, we created stories that leapt off the page, and windows that provided mini-narratives. We were all better prepared to help our students create, and took home the tangible products of our minds-eye, much as we strive to give each of our students a published chapbook of their work each semester’s end.
Fr. Steve’s lament over how unqualified his youth were to apply for the scholarships resonated with me. So too did the stories that spilled over each other, giving such depth to a seemingly voice-less segment of the city. Having seen the work of 826Chicago, I asked my dear friend and personal inspiration, Dr. Anna Guzon, if she would be interested in helping these kids through words. That email was sent on 12/29/14 at 1045 AM. Anna responded 57 minutes later that she had already thought of starting a creative writing workshop, had in fact been tutoring in Fr. Steve’s parish (without either knowing of the others ideas), and that she would work on it.
YourWords STL has picked up quite a crowd since then. The response has been immediate and so very encouraging in St. Louis. People have not just hopped on board, but have propelled YourWords forward at a breathtaking rate. I can only describe looking around that table last Sunday as humbling and extraordinary.
Anna and Jenn have been so effective with their blog posts, that I’ve taken to writing novel-length posts about their blogs! Through their words, hopefully you can sense the strength, talent, and drive of the young students in our workshops. I wanted to take a moment and thank their tutors. Yet we are still in desperate need for more tutors to join them. Thank you to all who have supported and joined YourWords STL. It’s pretty clear, we’re just getting started.