When Cody Allen walked into a meeting last week with youth writing educators Brittani Hissom and Ashley Warren, he was greeted with cries of “kudos” and “huzzah!”
That can be heady stuff for the Billings Public Library’s teen librarian, who recently landed an American Library Association Great Stories Club grant for training and books for a yearlong reading and writing program led by the two women at the Ted Lechner Youth Services Center in Billings.
Warren, an author, and Hissom, a teller supervisor at First Interstate Bank, have been teaching at the center for more than a year under the auspices of the Free Verse Project, a Missoula-based organization that teaches literature and creative writing in juvenile facilities across the state.
“A lot of our kids come from pretty violent upbringings and have had a lot of trauma in their lives,” said Hank Richards, lead educator for the past 12 years at the youth center. “Sometimes it’s hard for them to process that, to be empathetic because of their own issues.”
That’s why Allen had empathy in mind while writing the grant. He’s off to Chicago next month for training, and he’ll bring back with him copies of four books that Warren and Hissom will explore with the boys and girls on the detention side of the center:
- “All American Boys” by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, a book on how two teens — one white, one black — deal with a violent act.
- “Kindred” by Octavia E. Butler, about a modern black woman who’s snatched from her home and transported to the antebellum South.
- “Flight” by Sherman Alexie, about a half-Native, half-Irish 15-year-old boy who embarks on time-traveling.
- “Stuck in Neutral” by Terry Trueman, a story about how a family deals with a boy with cerebral palsy.
“Initially we were surprised by how much these kids love to read,” Warren said. “We get a kick out of hearing them ask their classroom teacher, ‘What books did you bring us?’”
Hissom added, “We see them as creative beasts who can come up with (writing ideas) in about 15 minutes. We hope this spark will help prepare them for the hard times to come.”
The two educators said that their pupils are victims and perpetrators — sometimes a little of both.
“That’s why exploring empathy is powerful,” Hissom said. “They don’t have a lot of role models, so their emotional lexicon is small.”
While the detention side of the center holds up to 24 youth, only 12 at a time can participate in the new empathy coursework.
“It’s a reward for kids who do a good job,” said Richards, the center's lead educator. He called the women’s efforts on behalf of Free Verse “a pretty good outlet for kids to express themselves. A lot of our kids love rap music, and they have integrated that into their lessons. Then they compare it with classical poetry.”
“They are often very interested in participating in school,” he said of the youth in detention. “It’s one of the few times they can be out with other kids.”
"We had two choices" when deciding which grant to apply for, said Allen, the teen librarian. "Empathy or what makes a hero? Since superheroes are in vogue now, we figured empathy just might be a boon to these kids."