With all of the problems in the world today, it’s easy to feel that a solution to those problems would require an army of people, dedicated to making the world a better place. But surprisingly often, a solution only takes one person – a person with enthusiasm and commitment – to have an impact on a community. The Glass House Writing Project is a demonstration of a way in which one man has been able to begin to affect his own community. Through the project, many “at-risk youth” have had access to a writing program that gives them tools to achieve success in their lives and a creative outlet to contend with the world’s problems that can often seem so overwhelming.
When Larry Levy, director of the Glass House Writing Project, returned to Toledo after serving three years as the poet-in-residence for the West Virginia Arts and Humanities Council and another 15 years as a corporate sales executive, he knew he wanted to continue to use creative writing to affect children’s lives. What he wasn’t yet sure of was the way in which he wanted to go about it.
Through a partnership with the Arts Council Lake Erie West, Larry was able to turn his dream into a reality. The program he envisioned would seek underserved populations and teach creative writing, while exploring the connections between writing, other art forms and literature. Time spent in the Appalachia areas of West Virginia teaching creative writing to underprivileged children helped Larry develop this vision. But in Toledo, unlike in West Virginia, he wanted to work with children long-term, and he specifically wanted to affect the lives of “at-risk youth.”
The Foundation invested in this project that helps build lives and strengthens our community. To learn how to support a charity of your choice, please contact one of our Philanthropic Services Officers at 419.241.5049, or email Bridget Brell Holt at Bridget@toledocf.org.Call 419.241.5049
“I began to develop this program by interviewing curriculum directors in the Toledo area. My question was, ‘How do you teach writing?’” Larry says. The answer was astounding: barely any classroom time was spent on creative writing exercises. Instead, teachers felt overwhelming pressure to “teach to the test” – a pressure that forced many classrooms to de-emphasize creativity.
According to Ohio’s education guidelines, by the time a student leaves the 10th grade, he or she should be able to understand the basic elements of literature, including plot structure and character development. Larry felt that one of the best ways to help students reach this “benchmark” was by teaching them about the writing process. “I find that writing makes children better readers,” he adds.
So a writing program, focused around poetry and creative writing, was what Larry pitched to Toledo-area schools. “It wasn’t a hard-sell,” he explains, “and once I started to teach the programs at schools, I was able to partner with other entities.” Through the Arts Commission of Greater Toledo, Larry worked with the TARTA bus system on a project entitled Art in TARTA, through which students developed poetry that was then written both around and inside the busses.
In the midst of working in schools, Larry also sought to work with at-risk students, and again through the Arts Council Lake Erie West, Larry partnered with the Lucas County Juvenile Justice and Detention Center in 2003 to teach reading and writing skills to incarcerated youth. “Most of the youth assisted by this program are well behind expected grade level achievement due to incarcerations, learning disabilities, chronic truancy, drug use, and chaotic family backgrounds,” Larry shares. “Marginal literacy and functional illiteracy prevail.”
The benefits of creative writing extend beyond learning how to read and write, however. According to Larry, “The primary mission of the [Glass House Writing] Project is to teach reading and writing, [but] the participants also benefit from having a safe outlet for self-expression, an opportunity to interact in a supportive academic environment and encouragement to complete high school.”
Unfortunately, five years into the program, the Glass House Writing Project lost its Title I federal funding. For a while, Larry volunteered to keep the program going for free, but it quickly became apparent that he wouldn’t be able to do it for long. “I was getting worried that the program wouldn’t be able to continue. I had exhausted my options as far as alternative forms of funding for the program and then I received a phone call,” Larry says.
“Greater Toledo Community Foundation notified me that the Stranahan Supporting Organization wished to help fund the program through a $21,500 grant. The news completely rejuvenated the program, allowing me to continue teaching students without interruptions in their lessons, and it encouraged me to continue to seek other funding.”
Larry meets with students twice a week, and affects close to 3,000 youth per year between the ages of 10 and 18. In his classes, Larry tries to emphasize practical skills: how to fill out job applications, how to write letters, and how to write structured essays.
Larry says one of the most rewarding parts of his classes is the time the students spend each week looking at the newsletter that Larry assembles. “It includes the work [they’ve] completed in the week before, and they love seeing their own stuff. To them, it’s like their work has been published,” he explains.
What it all comes down to, Larry says, is affecting lives: “People ask me, ‘Are you looking to change lives?’ And my answer to that is no, I’m just one guy. But I think a life can be impacted, and maybe even changed, through a series of positive interactions – and I hope that I am one of those positive interactions for these kids.”
The Foundation invested in this project that helps build lives and strengthen our community. To learn how to support a charity of your choice, please contact one of our Philanthropic Services Officers at 419.241.5049, or email Bridget Brell Holt at Bridget@toledocf.org.
_ Lydia Bottoni – Summer 2010 Intern