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Poetry Program in LA Helps Troubled Youth - 2002-12-10

California corrections officials say poetry and comedy are changing the lives of youngsters who get in trouble with the law.

Camp Kilpatrick looks like, and is run as, a military boot camp. Located in the rustic Malibu Mountains, it is a short drive from expensive neighborhoods where Hollywood stars have beachside houses. But there is little glamour inside this fenced-off compound.

Playwright Sandra Heyward started coming here seven years ago to teach writing with her late husband, movie producer Deke Heyward.

Ms. Heyward helps with a poetry class, which is sponsored by a nonprofit group called Dreamyard Los Angeles. The class is voluntary and, Ms. Heyward says, most who join it are talented writers.

"The guys are 14 through 18. They're in here for all kinds of infractions, starting from robbery, drug use, drug dealing," she explained. "Most of them have gang problems."

The class, held Wednesday nights, is taught by Keith Jones and Rob Thelousma. This week, nine youngsters gathered in a classroom to share their poetry, which was delivered in the staccato style of hip-hop music. The sessions cannot be recorded, but the poems speak of violence and survival, and also of the challenge of making the right choices.

Teacher Keith Jones says the sessions give young members a creative outlet.

"It's almost like a new door, a new window to look out of, because we come from the streets and its dysfunctional, and that's the only thing we have in common, violence and retaliation," he said. "But you come in this classroom and you're sitting side by side literally with your enemy."

Keith Jones has had his own struggles, growing up with a crack-addicted father and later serving stints in juvenile hall, including one for bank robbery.

"I'm out of jail. I've been out of jail since 1998, but I come up here weekly, routinely, because this is my therapy, this is what keeps me on the streets," he said. "And the kids say things to me that force me to keep living right, to walk the walk."

Teacher Rob Thelousma, a poet and screenwriter, says the youngsters share their poems and respond to the poetry of their classmates. He says the experience is cathartic, for both the students and teachers.

"I think our class, as far as writing, really gives them an outlet to speak what they're feeling and to deal with their problems in a way that's nonviolent," he emphasized. "I'd rather see them picking up a pen and scribbling down on paper what's on their mind emotionally than picking up a gun and killing somebody."

Many youngsters in the poetry class also take part in an acting class taught by Susie Duff, a trained Shakespearean actress and professional comic. She has formed a troupe called "Locked Up in Malibu," which does "improv," unscripted, improvisational comedy.

The middle-aged woman reminds her students, who are mostly black or Hispanic, that as far as she is concerned, they are simply actors.

"Because I say people of my skin color and my sex and my age are supposed to be terrified of people of your skin color and your sex and your age," she explained. "So don't tell me why you got locked up, because I don't want to have to dislike you, or pity you, or be frightened of you, because then I can't work with you as an actor. And from here on out, that's all you are to me, is an actor."

The teacher says the interactive skills developed through comedy can help students develop the confidence they need in other venues.

The teachers say these young offenders are passionate about their poetry and their acting. But the classes are not aimed at producing literary figures or Hollywood stars. Their purpose, says Keith Jones, is to help some at-risk youngsters resist the powerful lure of the gangs when they return to their neighborhoods.

"I'm fighting to take these streets back one block at a time. That's my mission," he said.

Keith Jones said the mission is being accomplished through sharing and creative self-expression.