“The poetry guy accepts us for who we are,” wrote one of the students at the Northampton County Juvenile Justice Center, in her poem.
The poetry guy? That’s John Cosgrove, a Shanthi Project leader and former high school science teacher who teaches poetry biweekly to children ages 13-18 who are in detention or undergoing treatment at the Center in Easton.
Whether teaching live—as he did before the pandemic—or remotely as he does now, John draws inspiration from the Pongo Poetry Project, a Seattle-based nonprofit that uses personal poetry to facilitate healing among youth coping with devastating traumas, such as abuse, neglect, racism, and exposure to violence.
“So often kids are judged harshly here,” John says. “But for the most part, these are decent kids who have made a mistake. How could any of us on the outside judge them without being in their shoes?”
John provides the students prompts in the form of professional poetry, paintings or photographs, and even music. One time he brought in Van Gogh’s Starry Night and asked the students to use words to describe it. Though rap is not allowed in the Center, he was able to read the poetry of Tupac Shakur.
“What they reveal in their poems amazes me,” John says. “There is a sense of seeing beyond the hurt, a sense of personal responsibility.”
Richard Gold, the creator of the Pongo Project wrote in his book, Writing with At-Risk Youth, "People who write poetry after trauma can learn to see themselves with pride, as individuals who have had difficult experiences—gaining a perspective beyond feelings of hurt, defectiveness, shame, and a sense of personal responsibility."
The poetry that students have written since this program began runs the gamut from raw, intense emotion to inspiring awe and hope.
“These kids have a real sensitivity to what’s going on in the world,” John says. “One kid wrote a poem to reach out to kids who suffered the shock and tragedy of a mass shooting at school. It showed real empathy.”
Through the years of the COVID pandemic, John has continued to receive more thoughtful, lengthier poems and he’s looking at doing a hybrid model once it’s safe to return.
Enjoy this sampling of Shanthi Project student poems shared with permission from each student. Click on each poem for a full-sized image.