Reconnecting Kids with the Significance of Literature and Changing Lives in the Process

Inspired by 826 National, a creative writing program started by internationally acclaimed author Dave Eggers, the Grand Rapids Creative Youth Center (CYC) is the only organization in West Michigan that provides students with enriched writing instruction. It encourages the development of both young minds and hearts through exposure to different ideas, authors, and genres.

CYC was founded in 2010 by Cecile Fehsenfeld of Schuler Books and Music and by Lori Slager-Wenzel of The Sparrows – two prominent destinations in Grand Rapids. Their goal was to bolster academic success and writing proficiency for kids ages six to eighteen living in Grand Rapids or attending the public school system.

CYC was incorporated as a 501(c)(3) in 2011 with Slager-Wenzel as executive director. Before receiving a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the budding nonprofit rotated its operation between the Baxter Community Center, Grand Rapids Public Schools, and the Cook Arts Center, until settling on a permanent location on Eastern Avenue in 2014. At the end of that same year, Slager-Wenzel moved to a board position, and CYC hired its first two full-time employees, including Kristin Brace, its new executive director.

Brace has a strong background and interest in creative writing and community building as well as experience in teaching and coalition building around literacy. She credits her success, both in navigating the world as a child and in developing her writing abilities, to having strong mentors of her own.

Brace reflects on the similar environment they work to create at CYC. “It is immensely rewarding to work with a team to cultivate a safe space where students can be themselves, express their thoughts and ideas, and build a creative community of peers and caring adults.”

Since 2014, the CYC staff have effectively built relationships in the community that improve programming and increase CYC’s impact. Two primary program offerings include Afterschool Adventure and Amplify and Craft.

Afterschool Adventure comprises a book club where students read a book of their choice one on one with an adult mentor in order to develop literacy skills and highlight writing techniques throughout their study together. Students further explore techniques in the creative writing segment of this afterschool program through nonfiction, poetry, and narratives.

Amplify and Craft offers students the opportunity to engage cross-culturally with local artists, continuing their exploration of writing topics and their discovery of which branch of art and literature speaks to them the most.

Last May, Amplify and Craft students were featured on Michigan Public Radio to promote a spoken word album between CYC and the Triumph Music Academy called I Am the Stars That Light Up the Midnight Sky.

Currently, CYC reaches students at 15 schools, mostly within the Grand Rapids Public School system, along with some homeschooled students. Since 2010, they have published the writings of almost 700 at-risk students in anthologies, chapbooks, and online publications.

Brace expounds on the impact she’s witnessed in the students, saying, “It’s exciting to see students gain confidence in themselves and come to claim their identity as writers. They get to see that their voices and their stories matter and that they are an integral part of the community. Moving forward, our hope as an organization is to be able to serve more students with the same deep impact our current student’s experience. Due to our small session size and low student-to-teacher ratio, we can give students individual feedback on their writing and provide special opportunities to help them learn and grow as people.”

CYC’s short but impressive track record so far bodes well for what is shaping up to be an even more promising future.   CYC is free to kids in the Grand Rapids Public School system and currently operates Monday through Thursday between 3:30 p.m. and either 5:30 or 7:30 p.m., depending on the program.

Grand Rapids Creative Youth Center 413 Eastern Avenue SE, Grand Rapids MI 49503 l (616) 458-5505 l CreativeYouthCenter.org