From group counseling to one-on-one sessions with a psychologist or even a soccer game, therapy takes many forms.
The Child Study and Treatment Center makes poetry a central part of its recreational therapy program that encourages patients — some as young as 6 years old — to express themselves in creative ways.
CSTC has teamed with Pongo, a Seattle-based nonprofit, since 1999 to help the facility’s patients work through their trauma and other troubles.
“All emotions are on the table,” said Ann Teplick, the Pongo project leader at CSTC since 2005. “These young people are so strong. For me it’s very visible to see how this helps them.”
The format is simple: The kids dictate poems — they don’t have to rhyme or follow a definitive structure — about their lives to poetry mentors. The mentors write and print the poems and give three copies to the poet, who then can keep it to themselves, show it to their therapist, family or anyone else.
“We don’t want there to be any barriers to kids being able to express themselves appropriately,” said CSTC Recreational Therapy Services Director Erin Carpenter. “We focus on dictation, deep listening and questioning so we can help bring out those poetic features to make a poem a poem.”
Pongo published “No More Me,” a book of poems by CSTC patients in 2001. Another anthology, titled “The Most Real I Feel,” will be published next year — Pongo’s 16th such publication — and includes poems about physical and sexual assault, addiction, abandonment and anxiety from children who were CSTC patients in 2019 and 2020. CSTC students are designing book art, and one patient’s work will be featured on the cover.
“The kids are excited about the anthology,” Carpenter said. “There is a lot about trauma and abuse and abandonment. These are heavy, heavy themes and a lot of these kids identify with the themes of the poems.”
Pongo has also published anthologies of poems from children in King County Juvenile Detention, Echo Glen Children’s Center and Lambert House.
Carpenter had limited exposure to poetry before she became a poetry mentor, but that hasn’t stopped her from using the medium to improve the lives of her patients.
“I have stories of kids I’ve been able to build a therapeutic relationship with because I was one of the Pongo mentors,” she said.
Dr. Mick Storck, who has been a psychiatrist at CSTC for 30 years, helped bring Pongo to the facility in 1999. He learned of the program from his neighbor, Richard Gold, who started Pongo in 1995.
“From a physician/psychiatrist standpoint, narrative is everything whether you have congestive heart failure … or trauma,” Storck said. “What is your storyline? Being able to write a poem for other people helps our kids complement the work they are doing in therapy.”
Pongo’s work at CSTC is funded by the hospital and the Clover Park School District, and the children receive school credit for the work. Pongo uses volunteers to serve as poetry mentors to help the youth they serve find their poetic voice. These mentors don’t have to have a background in therapy or a degree in English. They just have to care, said Shaun McMichael, Pongo’s program manager.
“Whether you’re a therapist or a construction worker and have a big heart and want to help someone, this is something for you,” he said. “The only advanced degree you need is a big heart and a willingness to learn.”