Sometimes the best lesson is the one that sneaks up on you.
Through its "disguised literacy" program, Write Memphis mentors meet each week with a group of middle school girls from the Beltline neighborhood to talk and write about their daily lives. At the same time they're dealing with illiteracy, group leaders hope to combat the problems associated with low self-esteem, such as drug use and teen pregnancy.
"For the most part, we get together and do writing exercises," says Emma Connolly, who started Write Memphis after moving here from Jackson, Mississippi, where she led a similar writing group for women in a transitional shelter.
For Connolly, the real reward is giving young women a chance to express themselves: "Their feelings and emotions get put on the page. They become real for them," she says.
The group promotes a non-hierarchical approach, where all members share stories and learn from each other. Mentors include former teachers, college students, retired professionals, and church volunteers.
"These are girls who may not have a terrific role model at home," Connolly says. "We want to show them that people from humble backgrounds can do anything."
Recently, the group added a new element. Adopting the curriculum of the True Body Project, a program that started in Cincinnati, Write Memphis will incorporate physical activities such as yoga, Pilates, and dance.
"We'll intersperse those movements with writing about the process, how it feels to move with free abandon," Connolly says. "My hope is that these girls will learn to respect, love, and understand their bodies."
Write Memphis is also looking to expand: In October, they'll start working with girls in the after-school program at Emmanuel Episcopal Center. While participation in the Beltline writing group has fluctuated, Connolly is looking forward to having more consistent attendance at Emmanuel. Residents of Frayser, Whitehaven, and Orange Mound have also expressed interest in starting writing groups.
"The girls we've worked with are still moving forward. They're staying in school. They're looking toward the future," Connolly says. "There's potential out there for growth, and we're looking for more mentors so we can start more classes."
For more information, visit writememphis.org.