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    Photos by Chris Witzke

    “I want you to think about what comes to mind when you hear the word ‘community,’” Hannah Rose Neuhauser says to a classroom of squirmy sixth-grade girls at Frederick Law Olmsted Academy South. Neuhauser is the program coordinator for Young Authors Greenhouse, a budding organization with a mission to bring creative writing skills to students in under-resourced communities. On this day in late October, Neuhauser, with cropped hair and eyes big and bright like oysters, has the attention of the girls, who at the start of class insisted that she looks like “Taylor Swift in disguise.” The girls start to shout words in response to Neuhauser’s prompt about community.

    “Society.”

    “Green.”

    “Family.”

    “A pool.”

    “Senior citizens?”

    “I heard family. I like that,” Neuhauser says as she writes on a dry-erase board. “We can think small — our family. We can think of our neighborhood, school. What else? What city do we live in?”

    The girls respond in unison: “Louisville.”

    “What about even bigger?”

    “Kentucky,” some say.

    “United States,” others add.

    “And then the earth!” one girl says.

    “The universe!” another says, followed by a loud sneeze that incites a chorus of bless-yous and giggles.

    Neuhauser has each girl make a list of issues within a community of their choice. They will then write a letter to that community that addresses the issues and offers a solution. Pens hit composition notebooks and the room erupts with chatter.

     

    Several years ago, Elizabeth Mays was working as an outreach coordinator for Teach Kentucky, a Louisville-based nonprofit that recruits teachers to the area. She was good friends with My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, who was good friends with novelist Dave Eggers, who co-founded the writing and tutoring nonprofit 826 Valencia in San Francisco. Mays admired what 826 and its six additional U.S. chapters (and the dozens of inspired organizations in the States and internationally) had been able to accomplish in those communities, and she loved how each center was fronted by an imaginatively themed retail center — such as “pirate supply store” in San Francisco and “robot supply and repair” in Detroit/Ann Arbor. Mays wanted to see that kind of thing in Louisville.

    “Then Jim got really excited about it,” Mays says. “He’s like, ‘Well, can I be involved, too?’ Well, of course.” She was able to get James and Eggers together onstage at the bar Play in November 2016 for a show and discussion on creativity, innovation and education, followed by a fundraising dinner for Teach Kentucky. “It was the week of the (presidential) election,” she says, “so it had been really sad and depressing for many people. It was this amazing, cathartic conversation.” It wasn’t until people started reaching out to her after the show, thinking an 826-like program was already underway in Louisville, that she realized it could actually gain some traction.

    Independent of Mays, Jeannette Bahouth, who has worked in nonprofits and as a tutor, was looking into starting an 826 chapter. “I’ve seen it work,” Bahouth says. “I’ve seen how students who are able to write well and learn how to express themselves are more successful in other areas of their life and in other subjects. It boosts confidence.” Someone from 826 Michigan connected her to Mays, and they joined together, bringing in Neuhauser, who had worked at 826 in Michigan for two years before returning to Louisville a year ago. Bahouth had been good friends with Jefferson County Public Schools teacher Jennifer Wade Hesse, who let the team launch this school year in her classroom at the all-girls Olmsted Academy South, near Iroquois Park.


    Photo: Elizabeth Mays (left), Jeannette Bahouth and Hannah Rose Neuhauser are the women behind Young Authors Greenhouse.

    Using prompts she learned through 826, Neuhauser leads thrice-weekly one-hour sessions, which will culminate at the end of the school year with a book of the girls’ work. “Just to have some adults in their lives tell them that their voices matter and we’re here to listen is really powerful for them,” Neuhauser says. “And to take that further — it’s not just us and volunteers, but we’re going to publish their work.” 

    James and Eggers partnered this November for an event at the Clifton Center (which had not yet occurred when this story went to print), with proceeds to the sold-out show going to Young Authors Greenhouse. The nonprofit is currently volunteer-driven — about 15 rotating in the classroom, plus about seven who assist with promotional efforts behind the scenes — but to get that playful retail center will require more funding. When in town, Eggers had made plans to drive around with the Greenhouse founders to scout possible locations for if/when the nonprofit fully incorporates into an 826 chapter, an application process that can take one to three years of grassroots building. Bahouth imagines it could be an enchanted forest theme, to go along with the greenhouse idea, a name they came up with because of the city’s park system.

     

    Back in the classroom, I sit down at a table with five girls. A girl with golden hair and a high-pitched voice asks a woman who is volunteering for help. “You know how grown-ups write these long paragraphs — like she’s doing,” she says, pointing to my notebook. “I wanna do that!”

    “How do you spell ‘violence’?” a girl says to Neuhauser.

    “I always say you all need to be brave spellers,” Neuhauser says to her.

    “I’m the bravest speller you can know!” the girl says, spelling it correctly without assistance.

    I ask the girls at the table if they like writing and they all say that they do.

    “It just gives me — it helps me,” says Italia, who has a more mature voice and braids shaping her face. “Everything from my neighborhood, I took it from anger and put it on the paper. This whole Young Authors thing helps me with my feelings. It helps me just to get everything” — she gestures her hands away from her chest — “out.” She’s writing to the president about violence and unity. Ruqya is writing to her school about bullies. Skylar is writing to her family about how they need to get along.

    “I’m like my dad. I like to write,” Skylar says. “My dad used to write long poems. That’s all my dad would do. He built his own shed and he’d just go in there and he wouldn’t come out until it was like pitch-black outside.”

    Their teacher, Jennifer Wade Hesse, doesn’t interact much with the girls during these workshop days. She reads to me something she has written about Young Authors Greenhouse. “These people are making my girls feel the power of their voices. The gentle encouragement, the affirmation that their voices have merit and the knowledge that the world wants to hear them are precious experiences for my students,” she says, then goes off-script. “Those kinds of things my girls don’t get. They rarely get it from home or the world. It’s even hard to get it in a regular classroom where you have 30 kids.” In Young Authors Greenhouse, the student-volunteer ratio is often four-to-one or two-to-one. “They’re still giggly, tired sixth-graders who have to be redirected and stuff like that, but to have 30 girls who are all focused on becoming better writers is pretty phenomenal,” Wade Hesse says. 

    Italia finishes her letter and proudly skips off to show Neuhauser, then lets me see some of her other work. She reads a poem she wrote about babies and a story about an enchanted forest. “When I saw the setting, things just started coming to my mind,” she says. “My brain can move faster than my hand does, so I have to write everything down before I can start making the story.

    “You give me a theme, I can write about anything.”

    This originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

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