Portal Into a New World: Saturday Writing Club at the John McDonald Residential Treatment Center in Monticello

Volunteers at Monticello devoted 4 hours every Friday to travel and work with girls, ages 13-17, in a residential treatment center.
Volunteers at Monticello devoted 4 hours every Friday to travel and work with girls, ages 13-17, in a residential treatment center.

by Lisa Roberts

On our very first day at JMRT this fall, when we jumped into two cars to leave Iowa City for Monticello, we didn’t know what to expect. We were a group of ten writers who were volunteering with the Iowa Youth Writing Project and who were thrilled to be starting a new Writing Club with the young residents at the John McDonald Residential Treatment Center. Some of us had even led a successful Writing Club at the Iowa Juvenile Home for two years, so we knew how great this experience could be. But truthfully we had no idea how the girls would react to us at this new site. They had been through a lot, we were strangers to them, and we were going to ask them to write. Luckily, when we pulled into the parking lot at JMRT and saw the front door, our uncertainty immediately dissolved. There, hung up for all to see, was a brightly-colored sign that the girls had made to welcome us to their home. Two smiling girls showed us to the cafeteria where we would go on to hold thirteen enlightening, open, moving, and silly sessions of Writing Club in the fall of 2014.

For every Saturday after that, our group of volunteers aimed to give the girls a chance to use writing as a way in and a way out. We introduced writing prompts that were “a way in” in that they invited life-writing about feelings and experiences, and we brought writing activities that were “a way out” because they inspired dreaming and the invention of new characters and worlds. One prompt we used did both: The Portal. For this exercise, we pointed to a place in the room and declared that it was a portal. It could take writers to any time or place that they wanted to go. We asked the girls to think for a few minutes about where and when they wanted to travel and then … to step through the portal! One of the youngest members of Writing Club wrote movingly that inside the portal she would find her birth mother and cuddle with her on the couch all day as the two of them watched movies. Another writer put down that she would go back to the time just before she did what got her into JMRT and make a different choice. A third member of Writing Club dodged lava from some erupting volcanoes as she hung out with the dinosaurs. Week after week, the girls’ openness to stretching their imaginations – and their bravery to travel to some scary places – blew us away.

Now that our fall sessions with Writing Club are over, it’s unanimous among the IYWP volunteers that we want to keep writing with the young women at JMRT. The residents and staff seem to agree, so we plan to be driving up to Monticello on Saturday afternoons for a very long time to come.

Lisa Roberts, a dedicated IYWP volunteer, not only organized volunteers and logistics for JMRT this fall, she also serves as the Chair of the Community Advisory Council (among many, many other things!). Thanks so much, Lisa!

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