Volunteer Spotlights

Raúl Sanchez, Redmond, WA Poetry Laureate (2019-2021)
Pongo Founder Richard Gold with Poetry Mentors Ashley Skartvedt and Lisette Austin

Pongo Poetry Project is proud of the spirit of volunteerism that has helped us carry out our mission since 1995. Our one-on-one poetry writing sessions with youth are facilitated by trained volunteers, Pongo Poetry Mentors. Our Mentors are some of the most caring and intelligent people you could imagine meeting. They are wonderful colleagues who serve as transmitters of teens’ painful stories and they do so with big hearts and a sense of humor. Writers, teachers, and therapists have fulfilled the role of Pongo Poetry Mentor. But so have musicians, stay-at-home dads, and students.

Pongo Founder Richard Gold

Richard Gold, Pongo Poetry Project’s Founder, was our first volunteer. He volunteered his time to serve as Pongo’s Executive Director until retiring in June 2020. Richard was Pongo’s program leader, an educator, an innovator, a change agent, a mentor, an advocate for underserved youth, and an inspiration to all of us. Pongo would not be where it is today without his leadership, guidance, and passion. For that, and so much more, we are truly grateful.

Below are just a few of Pongo’s generous, committed, and skilled Poetry Mentors:

When did you first learn about Pongo Poetry Project?

I first found out about Pongo in high school from my friend Maven Gardner who’s been a longtime champion of Pongo’s work. But I was re-introduced to the organization earlier this year and decided to get more connected because I was really excited about the growth of the organization in the last couple of years. 

What do you do/did you do professionally?

I am a fundraising professional and I typically work with organizations that create spaces for Black and brown youth, the literary arts, or programming for girls and gender non-conforming youth.  

What drew you to Pongo’s work? 

In my own journey as a kid and young adult, writing was my salvation. It was the center of my life: how I expressed myself, advocated for my community, and connected with people who would become my closest friends. So I know the power of writing in general, and poetry in particular, and Pongo is the organization I’ve seen be the most intentional about using poetry as a way to bring about healing. 

What do you find most challenging about Pongo’s work?

Poetry can be uncomfortable, especially if a young person is going through a lot and it can be difficult to witness so much pain. As a society, I think we’re taught to run away from hard things, and the work of Pongo is all about standing still and pulling back the veil to witness the pain and power of the youth poet. That is really hard to do, but it is also really rewarding. 

What has been a highlight of your work with Pongo thus far?

I missed one of the sessions and when I came back the next week, the young people all noticed and were excited to see me. I wasn’t expecting them to care and to know that I was making a big enough impact in their lives for them to notice my absence was a really precious moment for me.

What keeps you coming back each week?

I think writing individually can be incredibly healing so I know that this method where we’re doing it in community has the potential to make huge waves in all of our lives. There’s a special kind of energy when you’re supporting something like this and I always come back for more. 



When did you first learn about Pongo Poetry Project?


I first learned about Pongo in 2014. A friend of mine was volunteering as a mentor and I just had to know more.

What do you do/did you do professionally? What’s your educational background?

Writing is my first love. It is the way I try to make sense of the world. But I have pursued another creative path to earn an income and work as a designer in my professional life.

What drew you to Pongo’s work?

While some of the details differ, what I share with many of the populations that Pongo serves is a past in which I was discounted and silenced. Overtly and covertly I was told, ‘You don’t count. You don’t matter. Nobody cares what you think.’ So I feel compelled to honor people who have been marginalized—pushed out and discounted—told their lived experience is somehow less valid, less valuable.

What do you find most challenging about Pongo’s work?

Currently (in 2021), the biggest challenge is connecting emotionally through a computer screen. Pongo has done an amazing job of adapting during Covid but part of the magic for me personally is sitting and ‘holding space’ in person with that young author. Honoring their truth in words and with your physical presence—it’s sort of like hugging them with your energy. I miss that.

What has been a highlight of your work with Pongo thus far?

One highlight that comes to mind is from my first year volunteering when we were working with adults at 1811. (1811 Eastlake is a supportive housing facility for formerly homeless adults with chronic alcohol use disorders) One of the men we worked with had some significant challenges with speaking. Each individual word was labored. On the mentor side, it was an exercise in extreme patience. I can only imagine what that was like for him, struggling to communicate every day. It took the whole session to work through one poem. But what a powerful moment when we were able to read his words back as a beautiful, flowing, lyrical poem. You could see in that moment that his sense of self had transformed.

What keeps you coming back each week?

Every time I get to sit with and honor the truth of another person’s experience—especially those who are marginalized—I am fighting against that silencing. I get to say: You count. You matter. Your words count. Your experience matters. I get to be a mirror for their truth and hope they see how it shines.

*

I WANT TO SPEAK FOR
by Rebecca Richards-Diop

I want to speak for the girls
bound and muted
praised and powdered
into submission

for the girls
whose Spirits snapped easily—
like twigs too narrow for any fire

for the wide-eyed and wondering girls
who believed Trust was a temple
no one would trespass

for those same girls, perhaps,
who believed that
the Savior of Silence
would shelter and serve
them
who returned
day after day
tenderly, dutifully
suffusing its feet
bringing slippers
laying blossoms
tiny body
kneeling
kneeling
kneeling
in noiseless
praise

I want to speak for the foreign and forlorn girls
whose questions weighed heavily-enough
to bend bodies into the shape of their seeking

and for the girl walking now with an earth-bound gaze
shuffling forward
into another today

When did you first learn about Pongo Poetry Project?

In June 2020, I signed up on a whim to participate in a HOPE series session hosted by the UCLArts & Healing program, where I was introduced to Pongo’s methodology. I typically explore ways to stay engaged and connected to the writing community. Since I was returning to Antioch University Los Angeles, to complete an MFA, I thought my participation in the Pongo session would keep me pushing my creative pen.

During the workshop session, I coaxed a poem out of Jacinta, my class “partner” who, at 11 years old, had actually experienced a revolution in her country. She hadn’t thought of the incident in many years. The piece she wrote was about fear, courage, and her eyewitness account of what she saw and felt. The final product, her poem, amazed both of us. Shaun McMichael, deemed the poem good enough for publishing. I was impressed with the raw honesty Jacinta expressed during our simple virtual exercises. Who knew what could unfold in such a short time. Shaun kept extolling the virtues of the work and the good job we’d done. The process was so natural and the results so raw, I was and still am quite impressed.

Soon after, he contacted me and reiterated the fine job we’d done and asked if I would I be interested in participating in the Pongo poetry program. I didn’t hesitate. The only thing holding me back was I was in the process of completing an MFA, but felt the invitation was one I couldn’t refuse. I know the power of poetry and how it helped me pole vault over some of my own personal challenges.

What do you do/did you do professionally? What’s your educational background?

I’m a retired management/budget analyst, personal analyst, and former public relations manager.

What drew you to Pongo’s work?

All that I am, I owe to my community. I’m standing on the shoulders of others’ greatness. I have a responsibility to nurture and encourage others in the arts, which I love participating in and teaching about. Utilizing the arts can foster communication, and initiate healing and understanding, when other methods fail.

What do you find most challenging about Pongo’s work?

Hearing the pain and suffering of children spilling on the page. It’s as if they slice open their veins and bleed the ink of their sorrow.

What has been a highlight of your work with Pongo thus far?

Most recently, one of my students had a tremendous breakthrough when he inoculated himself with a dose of his own truth serum. During our session, he wrote three poems.

What keeps you coming back each week?

Knowing that I will learn more about human nature. Knowing that I’m making a small difference. Another reason I return each week is for the opportunity to serve and bless others, as well as prepare for an eventual opportunity to implement a Pongo-like model in Los Angeles or volunteer in a similar program.

Facilitating and guiding students through writing exercises aids in their self-expression as well as providing a release of anger or other emotions.

 

What years have you volunteered as a Pongo Poetry Mentor at CFJC (formerly King County Juvenile Detention)?

2013-14, 2014-15, Spring of 2019, and 2020-2021

What do you do professionally?

I am an environmental consultant, working primarily on assessment of impacts from large infrastructure projects.

What drew you to Pongo’s work?

A renewed interest in poetry, after many years of writing very little, led me to a conversation with Richard Gold, Pongo’s founder, and a friend from a yoga class. Richard asked me if I would have an interest in Pongo. I had been thinking about doing some work with teens. I had a difficult period in my teen years and am very grateful for some adults who helped me get on a better track. The combination of helping youth and expanding my exploration of poetry seemed a good fit.

What do you find most challenging about Pongo’s work?

I have inner doubts working with youth whose life difficulties in many ways make mine pale in comparison. I want them to go deep, because I know that can be good for them, but I also know that what I am asking them to do is incredibly frightening, to tell the hardest parts of their story, parts they have kept secret because they want to protect themselves. To get past my own fears about what I am asking of them, I just trust them to go as far as they want to and let that be enough.

What has been a highlight of your work with Pongo thus far?

I have witnessed many of these young people go from feeling like “not knowing” what to say, to seeing their own words in print and hearing them or even reading them aloud themselves, and seeing their peers, and everyone present, moved. For me, this experience is encapsulated in my memory of one young man who started out slow, but ended up writing a poetic autobiography, never having met his father; his mother, an addict who had disappeared, family that passed him around from state to state; a bullet wound. After we had filled the page, he went back through and changed the word “dead” to “old”. To watch a young person open the door and see this is something they can do, say exactly what’s in their heart, and then find people who are eager to hear – that is the highlight.

What keeps you coming back each week?

It makes me sad to think that there may always be a place like CFJC filled with youth who are struggling against steep odds to find a way to live that is safe, free, and loving. It seems to me a great place to apply the privilege I enjoy, to give them what support I can offer to help them get through. As I mentioned, I had the help of some really good people when I was a teen runaway, doing some of the same kinds of things these youth have been incarcerated for. I feel an obligation to pay it forward.

Clinical Psychologist, Becky Sherman, PhD volunteered with Pongo’s project at King County Juvenile Detention during the 2016-17 Academic Year . Becky has gone on to train others in the Pongo method.

Watch “Pongo Teen Poetry: Working with Youth in the Juvenile Justice System” , a presentation Becky gave at California Baptist University on January 19th, 2017.

In her presentation, Becky covers core tenets of Pongo’s approach, and Pongo’s Classroom Technique. In addition, Becky memorably explains trauma’s impact on the brain, and how the Pongo Method supports racial justice efforts while working alongside other therapies.

Feeling inspired? Volunteer with us!

Pongo’s Poetry Project Leaders over the years have included: Ann Teplick, Amani Sawari, Adrienne Johanson, Arlene Naganawa, Eli Hastings, Vanessa Hooper, Emily Holt, Emily Caris, Jefferson Rose, Martha Linehan, Dana Elkun, and Leslie Bourgoin.

Eli Hastings
Amani Sawari
Vanessa Hooper
Arlene Naganawa

Pongo Poetry Mentors have included Adrienne J. Bentsen, Alex Leviton, Alex Russell, Alexanne Madison, Alli Smith, Amani Sawari, Angela Franklin, Ann Teplick, Anni Armas Mahoney, Arlene Naganawa, Ashley Skartvedt, Becky Sherman, Brittany Dennison, Carol Goth, Carol Thompson, Charlene Cuhaciyan, Corey Teasdell, Dana Elkun, Daniel Gotkin, Danielle Bryce, Eli Hastings, Elizabeth Koontz, Ellen Bloom, Emily Caris, Emily Happy, Emily Holt, Erin Carpenter, Erin McCormick, Fred Nollan, Frederick Bryan, Gayle Wilde, Gemlene Schaudies, Gina Bettica, Hayley Elrod, Heather Timken, Jasleena Grewal, Jaspar Lepak, Jean Gant, Jean Lenihan, Jeanne Hopkins, Jeff Maggioli, Jeff Rose, Joanne Conger, Johan Grimsrud, Jonah Shallies, Kara Weiss, Kate O’Kelley, Katelyn Durst, Kathleen Levine, Katie Jaeger, Kevin Jones, Kiana Davis, Kristina Mageau, Leslie Bourgoin, Lisa Madelle Bottomley, Lisette Austin, Lu Anne Simpson, Lynn Zhao, Maggie Black, Mark Johnson, Martha Linehan, Mary Coleman, Matt Atwood, Melissa McBain, Michael Ortiz, Mike Hickey, Miral Luka, Nadia Imafidon, Natalie Singer-Velush, Nathaniel Orwiler, Paul Rathgeb, Phaedra Pascoe, Raúl Sanchez, Rebecca Richards-Diop, Reggie Anthony, Ron Rivard, Ross Cole, Roxanne Hulton, Samantha Krejcik, Samantha Leeds, Sandra Scannell, Sara Jones, Shaun McMichael, Shira Hasson-Schiff, Spencer Wahlstrom, Stephanie McManus, Stephanie Ramos, Tesmer Atsbeha, Urvasi Graham, Vanessa Hooper, Victor Opalia and others who participated in our six-month training and volunteer experience at King County Juvenile Detention, CSTC, and other sites.