Monday, November 17, 2008

Volunteer Spotlight: Jen King

Three years ago Jen King, along with her friends Megan and Shannon, came to Cabrini Connections with open hearts and a great idea—to start a writing club where our youth could come and learn techniques for personal expression in a comfortable, supportive environment. Now, with Megan and Shannon having taken jobs outside of the city, Jen leads the Cabrini Connections Writing Club solo, but with enough passion and dedication to fill 3 pairs of heels. Week after week her students come together before Wednesday tutoring to share their experiences, both positive and negative, with Jen and each other. Gradually realizing that it’s ok to talk about their feelings and that personal growth comes often from connecting with those around you. Jen put it best when she said: “Here, they’re connecting with me, each other, and themselves.”

However it wasn’t always this easy for Jen to connect with her students, in fact, she ran into huge challenges right off the bat. One of the first big challenges was to convince the students that she and her other friends weren’t there for “extra credit” but actually were choosing to be there because they wanted to be there. This has been accomplished slowly but surely, as the kids start to identify her not by what makes her different: her race, her age, but by what they share: friendship, trust and a deep sense of understanding as she helps her kids plumb the depths of their own feelings, beliefs and experiences.

Since Writing Club has primarily attracted our female students, Jen has really worked to explore issues of femininity with her students. Our students are lucky to have such a strong, successful and positive female role-model engaging and challenging them each week to assert their rights as young women and not conform to negative stereotypes! Jen is so happy to see her girls consistently referring to themselves as strong and sexy females in their writing, asserting their competence in a world that doesn’t always encourage women to hold such views.

Jen seems most proud of the way her students have really come to love the weekly “purging” exercises that comprise the first 15 minutes of each session. Here, students write about whatever is on their mind in a private journal that is shared only with Jen. This serves as a warm-up, getting the kids to feel more comfortable using writing as a means of personal expression while also serving as a much-needed catharsis in the middle of a stressful week. She has found that her students come to treat this exercise as a diary entry, trusting Jen with some of their most personal thoughts.

Asking Jen what keeps her coming back to Cabrini Connections’ Writing Club, her face lights up as she tells me, “At this point, I’ve gotten to know each of them so well and for an hour or so each week, they’re mine!
I’ve learned so much and can really pick their brains. I’m not going anywhere!”

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