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At Washington state's children's psych hospital: poets and Pongo

Florangela Davila
Poems are typed or written by hand by kids at the Child Study and Treatment Center in Lakewood.

Some of Washington’s toughest kids, at the toughest moments in their lives, are locked-up at the only state-run children's psychiatric hospital. They spend their time as residents, patients and students. And on occasion, they also get to be poets, working with the non-profit Pongo Teen Writing Workshop.

The weekly writing workshop unfolds in an ordinary classroom: five kids paired up with five adult mentors.

The mentors ask questions: How are you feeling? What's on your mind? They type up the answers and then flesh them into verse.

Mentor: "What would go along with feeling weird?"

A boy, in yellow shirt and shorts:  "Weird. It would probably be a monkey skateboarding on a banana with a helmet on his knee."

A different mentor: "Sometimes, in a poem, to just say, 'I was scared.' People don’t really understand what that must have felt like for you. So sometimes we use images or metaphors."

A different boy: "It felt like the whole world was on fire."

A third mentor: "So what's happened in the last two years.
A teenaged girl: "Well, that’s a little bit more personal."
"I’ve been locked up in and out of school."
"So can I say that?"

The mentor types.

A place for the toughest of the tough

The hospital is called the Child Study and Treatment Center and it's located in Lakewood. Forty-seven children live here, brought here as a last resort. These are tough kids.

"We get kids who have the full range of psychiatric diagnoses. Some of them have actually actively tried to kill themselves. some of them actually, when they’re admitted, are still trying to do that," says psychologist Jan Bacon, one of the facility's administrators.

But something powerful happens when the kids see the Pongo volunteers arrive, Bacon says. They're strangers -- outsiders -- who are willing to engage.

"For a kid to even believe that someone cares enough to listen to them tell their story is a huge leap," Bacon says. "There's something that happens when they write. They open doors into spaces they don't always look at themselves."

Pongo was founded by a poet named Richard Gold, who first volunteered at a special-needs school in San Francisco, in 1976. Gold later found out half the kids were patients at a nearby psych hospital. And the therapists told him his poetry workshops were making a difference.

"They were saying things like, 'Kids are writing things in their poems that they haven’t been able to talk about in years of therapy,'" Gold recalls.

After moving to Seattle, where Gold worked in book publishing at Microsoft, he continued volunteering with kids in juvenile hall, in homeless centers, at the psych hospital.

Volunteer work turns into a Seattle-based non-profit

He founded Pongo 16 years ago, retiring from Microsoft and turning his volunteer work into a full-time job. Pongo, named after a character in Gold's poetry, trains teachers and counselors; places volunteers at various sites; and publishes student work in anthologies. And with the Internet, Pongo is able to hear from teens all over the world.

The Pongo website has various "poetry-writing exercises" that encourages anyone to write and to submit their work.

"Writing by teens on the streets, in jail, leading difficult lives,” is Pongo's tagline.

Pongo has worked directly with more than 5,500 kids since it started.

The Pongo volunteers come to the hospital weekly. The group of kids change every week. They sit with their mentors at computers and in a little more than a half-hour, they produce work that reflects their current state-of-mind: a sense of pride having just gotten a report card; or grief over the death of a grandfather.

Out of privacy concerns, the kids' names can't be used.

They're asked to describe themselves: "Good with animals. Friendly." "Calm and kickback." "I’m loving, caring, I’ve had some problems in my past. but yeah, that’s it."

They look like teens anywhere, wearing jeans and sneakers; with faces fighting acne.  

They huddle with their mentors. Many of Pongo's mentors are professional writers.

Brittany Dennison works with a boy who wears glasses. He talks about the time he saw parents fight.

"They got louder."

"How loud? Can you think of a metaphor to describe it? Like it was like a volcano slowly erupting.  Or a wave slowly crashing over me?"

"It got loud like a firework."

"Did it look like a firework exploding?"

"My dad did, yeah."

The boy says the writing process was pretty easy, but the experience was unique.

"I’m used to doing everything by myself. This was kind of a personal thing that only I knew. And I shared it with Brittany and we wrote it down together," he says.

If you ask Gold, the real payoff of his Pongo workshop is that it bears witness to stories we might not otherwise hear.

If you ask the poets, it's nice to feel like they're in control of something, for once. And when they get things down on paper, they say, it also feels good.

Florangela Davila is KNKX’s news director. A journalist in Seattle since 1992, she’s earned numerous individual and team honors in print, online and broadcast, most recently three regional Murrows for KNKX.