HomeCollege of Arts and SciencesGrad Students Encourage Creativity and Expression in Shelter Youth through “Creative Connections”

Grad Students Encourage Creativity and Expression in Shelter Youth through “Creative Connections”

Creative writing isn’t the first thing a young adult thinks about when they’ve fled home to seek safe lodging. So, when the English Department launched a writing program last spring at a local youth shelter, organizers were cautiously optimistic. Now, a year later, they are savoring its success and future potential.

Creative Connections, a peer-driven writing workshop and mentorship program for 18- to 24-year-old shelter guests, began its second year this month. Two graduate students in the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program lead the sessions. Each week, they offer a writing prompt, host discussions, and let the inspiration fly.

“The MFAs are choosing material that speaks to their youth hearts,” said Adjunct Professor Shelley Stoehr-McCarthy, the program director. “Some guests have started to talk about their art, thinking of themselves as writers, too.”

That demonstrates the program’s impact. Since guests are living at the shelter due to a traumatic or unbearable situation, they may be reluctant to open up. Most of them live there for about 45 days. During that time, facilitators must foster community while building trust.

Music is proving to be a nexus, along with other prose and poetry.

“Songs are usually pretty good for getting people involved,” said Jacob McElligott, an MFA student who hosts the workshops with Sarah Weynand. “They can listen to it, read the lyrics, connect to that. A lot of clients are musicians — singers or rappers or producers. That connects them.”

The meetings nurture the bonds. Every week, the MFA students visit the shelter, a communal setting that provides guests their own bedrooms, a shared kitchen, and living room space. As the guests gather, McElligott and Weynand introduce themselves to new attendees. They set out pens and notebooks to encourage participation.

McElligott said the program has highlighted a basic human need: to be understood.

“They don’t have a lot of people around them to listen to their ideas,” McElligott said. “It’s hard for people that age and in that situation to connect with each other, without having something to connect them.”

That empathy resonates with Weynand, who herself walked in the shoes of the guests she’s helping.

“I was an at-risk youth,” said Weynand, whose MFA program has a concentration in poetry. “I felt so alone. I felt silenced. Writing became my solace.”

Weynand draws from her personal experience. She emphasizes that the workshop is open to guests, not required. She hopes they find it to be an outlet for their feelings, besides their creativity.

“Where do these other feelings go? If you’re experiencing homelessness and poverty, and food insecurity on top of that, you’re more at a loss. I try to say, ‘I’m here for you guys. You don’t have to stay and write if you don’t want to.’ [In my situation] I had to explain why I deserved safety or housing. I don’t want them to feel like they have to justify themselves to me.”

Stoehr-McCarthy said empathy fueled the program’s inception. In 2019, she attended a roundtable meeting of social service professionals. Inspiration struck. Their conversation about recently incarcerated individuals prompted an insight into homeless youth. Many aspire to get a college education but need help getting in.

“I thought, I bet at Southern, we could do something about that. It’s been an all-campus project in many ways. We started talking to everybody — the dean of students, Admissions. We went around campus. Everybody had something to contribute.”

Those discussions evolved into Creative Connections, but it didn’t end there. There was a recognition that the school’s MFA program was ready to expand its reach.

“It was perfect to think of this as another way the students could be working for the university to get some funding,” said Stoehr-McCarthy. At the same time, we recognized that a lot of our MFAs want to go into public service. It’s a great way for these grad writing students to see how their writing can have an effect on the world.”

Both students noted there is ample evidence of the program’s positive impression. Some days, guests are raring to share their independent writing or ideas for movie pitches.

“Last semester, we had a guest who would bring in raps he’d written, and he would perform them. We talked about form, style and rhyme,” Weynand recalled.

McElligott, whose MFA concentration is in fiction, said guests are finding connection and gaining confidence through creative expression.

“Every week, there’s usually somebody we haven’t seen. The staff will let them know to come downstairs, and people will sit close by if they’re not ready to open up and do the projects. Or they’ll write at the kitchen island, close their notebook, and go up to bed. They start to acclimate and will talk a bit more.”

McElligott and Weynand say that’s connection, confidence, and creativity personified. All of that helps guests gain independence.

Glori Bowman, director of the shelter, said Creative Connections gives guests a valuable avenue of expression. This comes, she said, in conjunction with the shelter’s help in finding them a job, getting the documents they need for employment, and finding housing.

“The clients are usually not open to trying something new. They already have their own way of dealing with their trauma. This gives them another outlet to explore,” Bowman said. Staff members encourage guests to give it a try.

“When they do engage, they really enjoy it. It has helped them to express themselves in ways they never thought of before,” Bowman said.

Stoehr-McCarthy said the Connecticut Office of the Arts funded the pilot program. More funding later came from the SCSU School of Graduate and Professional Studies. Graduate students who participated received semester credit or a stipend. That grew into a graduate assistant opportunity, awarding one student funds for tuition and fees.

Both McElligott and Weynand said the program has given as much to them as they’ve given to it. McElligott is considering a teaching career while nurturing his writing aspirations. Weynand is interested in finding ways to leverage her Creative Connections experience.

“I want to engage more in advocacy and bring creative writing to people who are in survival mode, who don’t have voice, who feel like they’ve had it taken from them,” she said. “I’ve learned that it’s a privilege to have them open up to me, a privilege to know them.”

Feedback from guests has shown that Creative Connections is also making an impression.

“It’s turned out better than I could have imagined,” said Stoehr-McCarthy. “If someone is leaving the shelter, there’s a survey. We give a blank space for ‘anything to add,’ and they always say they wish they had more of these workshops.”

Graduate students interested in learning more about Creative Connections can contact Stoehr-McCarthy at stoehrmccam1@southernct.edu.

On Saturday, April 15, 2023, from 12:30-3:30 p.m., Creative Connections will host a reading and end-of-semester event in Engleman D253 (English Common Room). Guest speaker Wendy Elizabeth Wallace will deliver a keynote address on “Creating, Editing, Publishing: A Peek into the Writing World, followed by a reading that includes open mic. Lunch will be served.

Keynote speaker Wendy Elizabeth Wallace (she/they) is a queer disabled writer. She grew up in Buffalo, New York, and has landed in Connecticut by way of Pennsylvania, Berlin, Heidelberg, and Indiana. They are the editor-in-chief of Peatsmoke Journal and the co-manager of social media and marketing for Split Lip Magazine. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, ZYZZYVA, Brevity, and elsewhere.


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