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Better Medicine

Through the power of poetry, Pongo Publishing is turning young lives around.

The caged bird sings with / A fearful trill of things unknown
But longed for still and his / Tune is heard on the distant hill
For the caged bird sings of freedom.
— From the poem “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou


Pongo Publishing volunteers and staff teach at
King County Youth Detention Center.

Many of the kids who come to live at the Child Study and Treatment Center in Lakewood play just like other children. They ride bikes, dress up Barbie dolls and dribble basketballs outside. What makes these children’s lives different is that they go about their everyday lives in possession of painful secrets. On CSTC’s pleasant tree-lined campus, three comfortable-looking cottages house children ages six through seventeen. The environment is designed to be peaceful, but the cottage doors lock from the outside. And no child who lives there carries a key.

At this state-run psychiatric hospital, medical staff must translate personal childhood narratives that are the stuff of nightmares. In therapy sessions and group discussions, children tell tales of woe. “Historical grief,” doctors’ reports read. “Life shock.” “Multigenerational trauma.” “Educational neglect.” “Sexual exploitation.” “Emotional Abuse.” “Rape.”

Sometimes the children won’t talk at all. But the list of atrocities they have suffered goes on. And somehow, each child’s self-esteem must be stitched back together. Somehow, their lives must begin to heal and they must find the courage and the hope to go on.

So how does one heal such broken spirits? How does a medical staff begin to provide care for, manage and treat these myriad emotional injuries, physical abuses and scarring injustices?

Traditional treatment approaches at CSTC include psychopharmacology, milieu therapy, individual therapy, group therapy and family therapy, as needed.

But the attending psychiatrist, Dr. Mick Storck, has begun prescribing something different for what ails his young patients: poetry.

Storck, who is also the attending psychiatrist at Children’s Hospital in Seattle and an assistant professor at the University of Washington’s medical school, has done focused medical research on the benefits of writing therapy. “To get a child to write about what is hurting them, then to have them share it with others – there simply is no better medicine,” he says. “No better medicine than having them write something to be shared and read by somebody else.”

In the past decade, Storck has joined forces with a friend, poet Richard Gold, to help heal children with writing. Gold is the founder of the Pongo Teen Writing Project, a volunteer nonprofit agency focused on helping teenagers who are incarcerated, in long-term psychiatric confinement or homeless and living on the streets, by teaching them to express themselves by writing poetry.

Before starting the Pongo Teen Writing Project, Gold had used poetry as therapy to help distressed youth he worked with, especially teens who had never written before, in a clinical setting, where his work achieved positive results. “When I was young and trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, I volunteered at a special school in San Francisco, where I established a poetry program,” Gold recalls. “I didn’t know at first that half of the students were patients at a psychiatric clinic in a teaching hospital. I only found this out when the therapists from the clinic approached me one day to say that my students were having breakthroughs in treatment because of the poetry they wrote in my program. The youth were dealing with issues in poetry that they had difficulty talking about in therapy.”

After Gold left the hospital, his career took a turn into special-education publishing. Eventually he became the managing editor of a computer-book publishing company. But he knew that when he retired he would return to expressive therapy. Once Gold finished his publishing career, he moved to Seattle, where he founded Pongo in 1996.

Now, fourteen years later, Pongo is doing its part to save the children – one poem at a time. From 2000 to 2008, Pongo has conducted sixteen hundred individual sessions and two hundred group sessions and has worked with more than four thousand teens to help them write therapeutically about their difficult life experiences.

Pongo’s trained volunteers go to juvenile jails, shelters and psychiatric hospitals like CSTC to work with distressed teens and help them write about their difficult lives. Workshop and online activities include writing on themes such as: I Wish My Life Was … , or What Makes a Good Father?, or Addicted, to name a few. Gold is particularly pleased by the recent launch of the Pongo Teen Writing Web site at pongoteenwriting.org. His intention for the Pongo site is to offer much of the program’s information, activities and poetry as a free and accessible resource so that even more teens, counselors and teachers can benefit from its methodology.

The kids’ works are collected and published by Pongo, with titles including Love Is Like All the Colors of the Doors in Juvie and My Passion Leaps Out Toward the World. Most recently, Pongo has published a collection of poetry from CSTC with the title No More Me. All proceeds from student book sales go back into supporting Pongo. Whereas total book sales log modestly in the low hundreds, Gold mainly publishes them to be given away as gifts to the children. “This is a labor of love,” he says.

Since the majority of Pongo’s young writers have suffered early childhood traumas such as abuse and neglect, the authors often have severe emotional problems, low self-esteem and difficulty expressing themselves. However, Pongo has developed its own therapeutic teaching approach and has been highly successful at helping the youth write about their lives in a way that promotes insight and healing. In a 2006 study approved by the Institutional Review Board of Washington, Dr. Miral Luka reports, “I found Pongo to be a relevant, effective tool for helping youth thoughtfully connect with their past difficult experiences, current mental health issues and salient behavioral issues.”

“Pongo has also helped our kids get motivated to learn,” Storck says. “They begin to write more eloquently, and many even learn to read through Pongo. Ironically, many of the kids who can’t read well are very articulate poets. The program also increases self-esteem and builds confidence. These kids have been through so much trauma, Pongo writing helps them have a creative process to get through the issues and heal.” •

See more in the February 2010 issue   →