Five young writers overcome the odds

Internship teaches area teens to write it as they see it

Writing has always come easily to Steven Portillo. “I was always able to write down what I couldn’t say and it would come out the way I wanted to say it,” says the 11th grader at All Hallows High School.  “How I feel is what inspires me.”

So when Steven was chosen to be part of the Kenyon College Young Writers Workshop, a two-week-long summer writing intensive in Gambier, Ohio, he saw it not just as a reward, but as an escape.

“It felt like being accepted into college,” said Steven. “Some people didn’t like it, but it was better than staying here.”

Steven is one of five students sent this past summer to the workshop by the Hunts Point Alliance for Children, a non-profit organization on Lafayette Avenue that prepares children for college through arts and writing programs. This is the sixth year the school has sent its most academically advanced, hardest working, and strongest writers to Kenyon. In addition to Steven, last summer’s scholars were Eduardo Gomez, Andrea Silva, Christian Hurtado and Leslie Richards.

And as of this summer, the alliance has created its own Young Writers Workshop, which helps the children who have gone to Kenyon College cement what they have learned with another week of intensive writing and editing. With a core credo of “writing for academic success,” the program uses writing to help children fall in love with learning and literacy.

“We want them to love it as much as they love skateboarding and to see it as a vital part of what it is that they do,” says Maryanne Hedaa, the president and founder of the alliance. “And that’s why we make it exciting, we make it long-term.” The program aims to start the students young, and work with them up to grade 12.

The workshop at the alliance has the added goal of helping students prepare for the academic challenges of college by developing strong writing skills. The alliance recognizes that not only does this neighborhood have the highest rate of childhood poverty of any congressional district in the country, it also has a remarkably low percentage of children who graduate from college – 7 percent, according to City-Data statistics. Hunts Point Alliance for Children has developed programs to help move that percentage up.

During the workshop in the Bronx, students read short stories, poems and essays, which they then discuss, write about and use as inspiration for their own work. The alliance’s own writer’s workshop is held the week after students return from Kenyon to reinforce the skills that they picked up during their stay in Gambier. There was also an additional workshop focused on poetry and the personal statement or essay. Last year students compiled their work into a review titled “The 6 Train.”

The alliance has also added an all-girls after-school writing workshop called The Mighty Quills, and will once again publish The 6 Train with work from seventh through 12th graders.

“It’s crucial for these kids to be competitive in their applicant pools as they apply for college,” explains Victoria Cohen, the program coordinator. “It’s definitely also about sending this community to college to give them a better future, and making sure that everyone is as marketable as possible.”

Each year, administrators at the program nominate students for the Posse Award, a grant from a national foundation that mentors children from underserved communities through the college process and beyond with financial aid and personal support. Three are nominated this year, and a former winner of the award is now at Dickinson College. The program’s success in a national forum is proof that learning to write – and learning to love it – can transform a student’s future.

“Learning to write well gives the kids the confidence to test themselves in the outside world,” says Hedaa. “We don’t cherry pick them from programs for gifted children. They are Hunts Point’s great children who show a little heart, show a little hustle, and are willing to stick with it.”

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