The Write Stuff

YouthWrite’s summer program brings out campers’ creative voices

When I walked into YouthWrite’s longtime home in the Bennett Centre, a former public school in Edmonton’s river valley, I didn’t expect to leave with warm feelings. In my defence, I didn’t think kids who spend their first week of summer vacation at a writing camp would have big smiles on their faces.

I remember the writing camp I attended when I was a 12-year-old in China. We spent the days learning about grammar and syntax, and the writing topics were assigned ahead of time. I was asked to write “A Happy Day at the Camp,” but instead I cried when a bunch of campers fought on the ground. The counsellors begged us not to tell our parents.

I arrived at YouthWrite on the last day of the River Valley Experience and found it was far different from the writing camp I attended. While I expected the kids to read their “One Happy Day,” the instructors went onto the stage with guitars and synthesizers. The kids cheered as the instructors introduced interdisciplinary courses I had never heard of.

There was “Rhythm, Movement, Words, and the Creative Flow,” instructed by Marcus Fung, where the students hummed and danced along to the music, then performed a harmonizing scene about nature through body movements. For Tololwa M. Mollel’s “Stories Shared and Stories to Share,” the students pitched fictional story ideas inspired by real life experiences. And when Brad Bucknell sat down with the kids and played guitar choruses with the songs they wrote, I was stunned.

Among the 40 kids and their families, a man with glasses sat in the front row, clapping at the performances with a proud smile. This wasn’t MLA Marlin Schmidt’s first time visiting YouthWrite. When the camp invited him to give a speech as part of their annual tradition, Alberta’s former Minister of Advanced Education took it seriously.

“It’s important, kids, that you spent the time here to find your voice,” he said. “Now, you all have the rest of your life to learn how to use your voice wisely. Once you’ve found your voice, keep using it. There will be people you meet that really don’t want you to use your voice. Don’t listen. Keep telling your stories.”

In the 26-year history of the YouthWrite Society, the camp has offered residential and day camps to thousands of young people from the age of eight to 18, promoting 21st-Century, multi- disciplinary literacy. The creative learning styles include linguistic, musical, spatial, visual, interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligences. At the end of each camp, students are welcome to submit their work to YouthWrite Magazine, with print publication credits.

“When we first created YouthWrite, it was about having a space for creative kids who don’t necessarily have a summer camp to go to,” says Gail Sobat, writer, educator and founder of YouthWrite. “Oftentimes, we found that the kids who came to us didn’t have a safe space to find their creative voices. They need to communicate with like-minded individuals.”

Growing up in a household with multi-disciplinary creative backgrounds, Sobat emphasized interdisciplinary writing courses when coordinating camps. YouthWrite also features courses on creating social media content, online media courses and video-game writing.

In the interests of keeping the young writers community thriving, YouthWrite receives financial support from the Edmonton Community Foundation’s Endowment Sustainability Program (ESP). The ESP helps organizations establish and grow endowment funds. With the aim to create a long-term stream of funding, the ESP offers cost-effective training and access to the experiences of our donor advisors.

“Kids are facing all kinds of issues in the world, and YouthWrite is one place for kids to cope with their skills, find their voices and learn how to make a change,” says Sobat. “Two years into the pandemic, these kids lost two years of their lives. They need to learn how to socialize, how to engage with one another, and how to express themselves when facing a world with joy and sorrow.”

After wrapping up the River Valley Experience 2022, supervisors and instructors were preparing for a new week with 15- to 19-year-old campers. While the age group varies each week, the passion of writing lingers around Bennett Centre all summer long. I walked out with kids and families on that humid summer night, listening to the parents catching up with their young writers along the street. I heard one dad who sat next to me during the presentation ask his son, why he bailed when it was his turn to share a story.

“I was holding the camera the whole time. What happened, my dude?”

“I got nervous!” cries the boy. “Also, I feel like my story wasn’t vibing with the rest of the group’s.”

“You want to try to use your voice again next time? We can come back next summer if you want.”

“Sure. I can also read you my story now.”

The father and son got into their car. I saw the boy take his journal out, waiting for a private presentation session and a future with many stories to share.

This article comes from the Fall 2022 edition of Legacy in Action. Read the full issue.