YourWords STL began when two people had the same inspiration around the same time, with just enough serendipity to bring that thought into action. Two high school friends, Dr. Anna Ojascastro Guzon and Dr. Steve Handoyo, like much of St. Louis, were disheartened by the events that surrounding and following Michael Brown Jr.’s death in 2014. While Anna had already been moved to tutor children at St. Louis Catholic Academy (SLCA), Steve came home from Chicago that Christmas and had a life-altering conversation with a relative, Fr. Steve Giljum the parish priest of SLCA.
Over Christmas brunch, with Ferguson in the foreground of people’s minds, Fr. Giljum recounted with pride, the love and goodness of the young African-American men in his North City parish. Fr. Giljum reveled in the memory of the boys guardedly attending a fundraiser in a West County home, and leaving elevated by the possibilities lying just a few miles from their homes. He lamented the writing skills they had not acquired to tell their story, and how it would affect their ability to attend college and receive the financial aid needed. Fr. Giljum explained his fear each time he said goodbye to one of the boys. They were all imperfect and therefore, normal, St. Louis teens, some from the same housing complex as Michael Brown Jr., all surrounded by danger.
A late-night email from Steve to Anna helped convince Anna to solidify and expand her work. Taking the idea of creative writing as a tool of empowerment, and programming initially modeled after 826 National’s curriculum, Anna and Steve created YourWords STL in early 2015. Their artistic vision was strengthened with essential administrative infrastructure by high school friends Jenn Rengachary and Sarah Vehige Krussel.
Following the initial workshops at SLCA, Anna led pilot workshops at Marygrove Children’s Home, a therapeutic residence, in Florissant, for infants to 21-year-olds who have been neglected, abused, or have nowhere else to turn. With support from Kathryn Feldt, the Chief Development Officer of Marygrove, YourWords STL began weekly 90-minute tutoring and writing sessions for the 16 to 21-year-old males in Marygrove’s transitional housing.
By the end of 2015, we obtained 501(c)3 status. Starting in May 2016, with support from CIC St. Louis and the Regional Arts Commission (RAC), our program director was granted an artist’s residency, thus giving YourWords STL a home at CIC@CET in the Cortex district. RAC also awarded us a program support grant for July 2016 to June 2017. And, in the summer of 2016, Midwest Artist Projects Services (MAPS) granted us fiscal sponsorship, lending essential administrative and bookkeeping services to our volunteer bookkeeper, Sheri Phegley.
In addition to full programming since 2015 at Marygrove, we are so pleased to have opened up another regular workshop at Lift for Life Gym in North St. Louis City, led by Patsy Zettler, who also serves as our tutor coordinator.
YourWords STL began two collaborative writing projects in 2017, between the eighth-graders at Parkway Northeast and the 5 and 6-year-old girls at Marygrove, as well as the sixth-graders at Parkway Northeast and St. Louis Catholic Academy.