At the CYC, kids become published authors, leading to a strong sense of identity and an enthusiasm for learning. We believe that while nurturing kids’ writing can give them access to the world, fostering their creativity may allow them to change the world. -- Creative Youth Center of Grand Rapids website.
Do what you love, and the money will follow. Lori Slager is proof positive that obeying this adage does eventually pay off. Three years ago, with help from Cecile Fehsenfeld, board member and owner of Schuler Books & Music
, Slager founded Creative Youth Center
(CYC) to “give kids a leg up on writing and journalism skills.”
Thanks to a recent, generous $225,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, CYC can now boost its community impact by broadening program offerings, hiring full-time staff members, and leasing a new space at Wealthy and Eastern in the building that used to house the now-defunct Literary Life Bookstore. The funding covers general support for the organization through September 2015. The new digs will also boast a storefront and bookstore for kids.
The idea for CYC began after Slager, a former Schuler Books employee, visited a similar kids’ writing program in Chicago, where her friend, Fehsenfeld’s daughter Anna, volunteers. Slager fell in love with the concept. At the time, she was teaching writing at the Cook Arts Center
. With no prior experience in starting up and running a nonprofit, Slager put her research and writing skills to work and learned how to find and write grants and form a 501(c)(3) organization. Thanks to start-up funding from the Fehsenfeld Foundation, Wealthy Street business owners, Dollar General, and the Awesome Foundation, CYC has divided its time and teachings between the Cook Arts Center and the Baxter Community Center. Until now.
About CYC, Slager says, “I love working with kids -- it’s incredibly rewarding and fun. I really, really enjoy my job. It’s challenging. Every student has a different way of learning, and our challenge is to meet that. We spend a lot of time doing creative writing, a lot of time laughing. It’s kind of a dream job -- the administrative part of it is less fun, but it’s still stimulating and exciting.” Slager’s boyfriend, Dustin Tinney, 31, who works software design firm Atomic Object
, helps out by writing code for CYC’s website.
At present, only a couple of classes meet regularly, but CYC offers a variety of one-time or weeklong events. In past workshops, students have written a story as a group, and a professional artist worked on-site to illustrate their story. Each child received a copy of the finished book to take home and share with his or her family.
There are 75 students total; from week to week, that number probably approaches 40, maybe 50. The students are primarily “at-risk” kids, who are very capable, smart kids from low-income neighborhoods. “Our classes are colorful,” says Slager. “We have a mix of minority and Caucasian students.”
The twice-weekly tutoring program has helped kids in several ways. “We took a survey, and all of them said that the tutoring helped their grades,” Slager says. “They like the mentorship and the tutors. Grades have definitely improved. We’ve entered some kids’ work in contests, and two students won LaughFest awards. We try to get their names out there as much as we can.”
CYC publishes the students’ work in a myriad of ways, “which helps them understand what they’re capable of,” says Slager. “It gives them confidence.” There is a press club, and students regularly publish on the e-zine, The Rapidian. “When the kids interview people, they ask very intelligent questions,” says Slager. “These are excellent learning opportunities, and we publish their work in a book that is printed at Schuler’s.” The first anthology of student work, The C.Y.C. Book of Explosions
, may be purchased on the Schuler Books website
Notoriety for the kids manifests in other ways as well: One board member is a videographer, and some people read the kids’ stories on camera. “We try to make them famous as much as we can,” says Slager. “Our Press Club helps make them feel confident."
Slager, 33, grew up in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, which, she is quick to point out, are “way different from the city.” She came to GR to study elementary education with a minor in English and art at Calvin College. Soon, she switched majors to focus solely on art education. “English was always an easy ‘A’,” she says, “but art was more challenging and interesting because it wasn’t so easy. I had always focused on reading and writing up to that point.”
Since moving to GR, Slager has made a lot of friends thanks to GR’s “healthy friend environment,” she says. “That’s the main reason I’ve stayed.” She misses Chicago’s museums, but it’s nothing that a train ride can’t fix.
This former shy child is also dedicated to improving the community, which is one reason why she opened The Sparrows Coffee Tea & Newsstand
at 1035 Wealthy SE in 2007 -- to create a space for people to connect. She says that some people who have met here have gone on to be married.
As a child, “I spent most of my time being imaginative,” Slager says. “I played outside, loved art class, and my favorite pastime was reading.” She has six older brothers, all of whom still live in Illinois, and she describes her childhood as being “very unusual.” Her oldest brother is 17 years older, and he and she share a birthday.
“Mom paints and taught writing,” says Slager. “She encouraged my imagination. Dad worked construction, and I played with his tools. I always wanted to be a teacher when I grew up.”
Slager’s dream job may get kids excited about writing, school, and winning contests, but even better, teachers are taking notice. “They brag about how good the students are,” says Slager.
CYC’s programs are free for all students attending Grand Rapids Public Schools.
Victoria Mullen is (in alphabetical order) an actress, artist, attorney, photographer, and writer based in Grand Rapids. She is originally from Milwaukee, Wis.
Photography by Adam Bird