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This summer, Grand Rapids and Wyoming Public Schools learned they were denied federal funding that supported their after school programs. Nine Grand Rapids schools were left without any funds for after school programming, and Grand Rapids students are left with the need for alternative means of expression, creativity and support. What better reason to go out for a couple drinks on Thursday, September 20, and raise a glass to, and for, the wonderful people at Creative Youth Center (CYC)? CYC provides free after school programs for students within Grand Rapids Public Schools.
The Meanwhile Bar (1005 Wealthy St.) will generously donate 30% of their sales to CYC on September 20, starting at 4 p.m. Co-founded by Lori Slager and Cecile Fehsenfeld in 2009, CYC helps children empower themselves through creative writing. I spoke with Slager at her coffee shop, The Sparrows (1035 Wealthy St.), about CYC, its future and the importance of creativity.
Steven Edelman: What inspired you to start this organization?
Lori Slager: Quality after school programing. I would go into these LOOP programs and some of their leaders were fabulous. They worked really well with the kids. However, I think they just didn’t have the capacity to train them. I wanted to do something that would make a better after school program. At this point it's less about me teaching than about giving the kids a really cool experience that they wouldn’t otherwise have. I don’t focus so much on myself giving them this experience as helping them create this experience. They are entirely capable of coming up with their own exciting, fun experiences. It’s just giving them the space to do that, giving them the freedom to do that.
SE: Have the recent budget cuts provided a further catalyst for CYC’s work?
LS: The LOOP Program got their funding cut big time...there’s no actual programming now in nine of the Grand Rapids Public Schools. Two of those [schools] are right by here. We have this great opportunity to rent this space at Wealthy and Eastern; the owner is very supportive of what we are doing and we want to stay close by. We will do programming at MLK Academy, which is right behind that building and then Congress Elementary which is by Marie Catrib’s and then continue doing it at Baxter Community Center and the Cook Arts Center.
SE: What will CYC look like in this new space?
LS: Ideally we want to serve 30-40 kids in the space in after school programming doing homework club and tutoring. In the evenings, we want to do these writing workshops and keep publishing student work. We also want to give schools help, give teachers extra hands. We haven’t started that yet, but teachers who want to do larger projects like school newspapers need help - that’s when we’d send in our volunteers.
SE: What ages are you working with now and what ages do you hope to work with in the future?
LS: Right now it's mainly elementary students. We do have a group of middle schoolers that are our press club- they are amazing. At Grand Valley we worked with high school students. That was a newer thing. I’d like to do more with high school students.
SE: Why creative writing? Do you think there’s something different about written creativity as opposed to visual creativity?
LS: There’s definitely a difference. With writing, kids equate that with school instantly. We try really hard to make it feel as little like school as possible. We sometimes combine it with visual creativity. We have them draw a monster or a situation [and] then write a story on it. Or they write the story, then get to draw it. As far as the writing goes, the creativity of it really gets them interested. It’s what gets them going because it’s their own ideas. With a lot of the younger ones who struggle with the act of writing we will let them dictate to us what their story is at first. It’s been a little over a year we’ve been teaching at Baxter, and there are at least two of the 6 and 7 year olds that started off absolutely hating it, refusing to write. Now they are dying to write. There’s one little girl in particular that for the first few months, I had to write everything for her. I can’t take credit for her penmanship or anything like that, but being in that comfortable space she was more excited and able to let go of her fears and just start writing.
SE: Where is CYC now?
LS: Right now we’re working at Baxter Community Center and Cook Arts Center. We’ve done programs through Grand Valley. We’ve worked a little with the library and are hoping to do more with them. We don’t have our own location, so that’s been our biggest issue. We have people who want to get their child in and we have to tell them first they have to apply at such and such place or they have to live in the neighborhood. It’s been tough because we have to tell people no. When we have our space, we can take more kids in.
SE: What methods have you found best access, fuel and focus creativity?
LS: I usually find that just asking them questions will get their imagination going. About 10 questions in, they just start owning it. I don’t have to ask anymore. They just start telling me more and more about these characters and what happens to them. I think they just need that little tiny push in the beginning to get going. They also need to trust me a little. They need to be ok with me being there and asking them questions.
SE: So much of this program is driven by its volunteers. How does that effect what you do, having people coming in to give their time?
LS: There are two ways it affects me. It makes me want to try harder to make this work because there are people backing it up and also believing in it. It reaffirms everything. It reassures me that this is a good idea. The other thing is that it lets the kids know it’s worthwhile. We’ll occasionally remind them that these people are here on their own time. They are not getting paid for this. They are doing this because they like to do this. The kids are like, “oh, yeah,” and suddenly they get back to work. They realize this is a really valuable thing. It’s sometimes overwhelming how supportive our volunteers are. They get a lot out of it, too, because the kids are so loving. They are so open and share all the time. It’s amazing.
SE: How do you think being a woman has shaped how you have approached this organization and creativity in general?
LS: Owning The Sparrows [coffee shop], I’ve felt that being a woman is a set back. People will come in and ask a male employee washing the dishes if he is the owner, rather than me, and I’m sitting there writing the checks. With the writing center, I’ve never felt like it’s actually mattered. But, I have to say, that the majority of people working and volunteering in our organization and in a lot of after school programing are women.
Therefore, go to The Meanwhile Bar on September 20, drink, donate, sign up to volunteer and then celebrate your self and your kindness by drinking a little more. Support this organization which works so hard to support and empower the creative possibilities within the youth of Grand Rapids.