Poetry provides catharsis for girls in Philadelphia treatment facility

Voices of Beautiful Flowers
Jenna Naff & Jordan Blackbird reading poetry hung on the walls at the Voices of Beautiful Flowers book launch at Bacchus Theater in Newark, DE. Saturday, February 21th, 2014.

Managing News Editor

Rape, homelessness and drug addicted parents—these are just some of the sources of pain amongst a group of girls at Wordsworth treatment facility who have pasts filled with hurt.

The Philadelphia facility has limited resources to offer the young men and women housed there, but for the past five years, the girls have been provided with an emotional outlet in the form of poetry.

Their poetry deals with religion, drug use, relationships and variety of other intensely emotional topics. In a poem titled “My Poem” one of the girls writes about the fulfillment she gets from writing poetry.

“My poem isn’t food, but it does fill the need,” the girl writes.

Together with the girl’s poetry teacher, Emlyn DeGannes (Ms. Em), junior Rebecca Guarino and senior Katrina Bleeker have compiled the young girls’ poetry into a book titled “Voices of Beautiful Flowers.” On Feb. 22, DeGannes, Guarino and Bleeker premiered the book to the public at their book launch in Bacchus Theater.

However, getting “Voices of Beautiful Flowers” published was not something that happened overnight. Five years prior the book launch, DeGannes, an author and bookstore owner, had been corresponding with an incarcerated man named Rainn serving life in prison, which culminated in her novel “Letters to Ms. Em.”

Voices of Beautiful Flowers
Young girls of the Wordsworth juvenile delinquent facility were asked to write whatever was on their mind onto the mannequin head.

In one letter, Rainn encouraged her to find a group of at risk young girls to educate, which is when DeGannes began visiting the girls of Wordsworth.

“You don’t know who you’re going to be learning from—a classroom, your parents, a man in prison,” DeGannes said.

In his letter to DeGannes, Rainn referred to the group of young women that DeGannes needed to find as “beautiful flowers,” which subsequently provided the inspiration for the book’s title. For legal reasons, the girls’ names can not be published. Instead, various types of flowers serve as the young girls’ pen names.

While poetry has changed some of the girls’ outlook, the girls have also changed both Guarino and Bleeker’s perspectives as well.

Rebecca Guarino, a secondary mathematics education major, said she was going through a period of soul searching. She was in a place in her life where she had decided that she needed to make changes, so she turned to God for guidance—that was when Emlyn DeGannes (Ms. Em) came into her life.

DeGannes said she had been required to read “Letters to Ms. Em” for her course on diversity in the classroom. When DeGannes came to the university as a guest lecturer to discuss the novel, she mentioned her work teaching poetry to the girls of Wordsworth juvenile treatment facility and offered the students in the class an opportunity to tag along. Guarino said she knew in that moment that God had answered her prayers.

“I felt called,” Guarino said.

A year and a half later, Guarino has travelled to Wordsworth every week to meet with the girls. She said the first time she went to Wordsworth she was nervous and unsure of what to expect. She prepared herself to meet girls who were depressed, angry or even emotionless.

“I thought that they would all be very closed off to me,” Guarino said.

Voices of Beautiful Flowers
Kimberly Ferris reading poetry at the Voices of Beautiful Flowers book launch.

But that was not what Guarino found. She said she quickly realized that the girls had a range of diverse personalities. From a girl who enjoyed writing her poetry about ice cream trucks to another who only communicated through song, the young girls in treatment were “still teenagers or young girls looking to be loved,” Guarino said.

Over the past year, Guarino has watched these girls grow and mature, and she said she even still goes out to dinner with one of the girls who graduated from the facility.

For Bleeker, creating “Voices of Beautiful Flowers” was about these connections with the girls and breaking down preconceived notions about at risk youth.

“It’s about seeing something in them that perhaps no one else sees,” Bleeker said.

Bleeker said she had originally decided to travel to Wordsworth with DeGannes because she needed observation hours toward her psychology education major, and to her, it sounded like it sounded like “a meaningful alternative to just observing in a traditional classroom.” However, for Bleeker, the experience became much more than just observing.

She said the experience has helped her to see individuals without judgment and appreciate people for who they are, which she said she has been able to apply to student teaching. Now, when she is in the classroom, she said she looks at the “troubled students” that teachers may not want to work with, and she thinks to herself, “I hope I that I can reach out to them, that they stay, that they listen, that they learn something.”

At Wordsworth, some of the girls feel trapped, Bleeker said. While they have food, shelter and classes at the facility, the boys and girls of Wordsworth are not allowed to leave, and they have restricted contact with their family—everyday opportunities that people take for granted are limited for the young people at Wordsworth, Bleeker said. She said sometimes they provide clothes or other basic essentials, and the girls are always excited for books or schools supplies.

Voices of Beautiful Flowers
Aidan Leddy performs at the Voices of Beautiful Flowers book launch.

“They are there, and they’re not really able to go outside that facility—out of sight out, out of mind,” Bleeker said. “It’s not that people don’t care, it’s that they don’t know. [Voices of Beautiful Flowers] is a great way to be able to have them share their voices.”

Bleeker said creating the book was not about a single effort, but a collective effort of friends and family who helped to make “Voices of Beautiful Flowers” possible. While DeGannes had the idea to publish the young girls’ poetry several years prior, in the past year, Guarino and Bleeker decided that they wanted to raise the funds to make DeGannes’ vision possible.

Together with their friends and roommates, Guarino and Bleeker began making paper flowers, magnets and other crafts to sell at flea markets and eventually raised around $1,000.

Along with a variety of other fundraisers, Guarino, Bleeker and DeGannes were able to raise enough money to publish “Voices of Beautiful Flowers.” At the Feb. 21 event, the rows, along with the walls, were lined with paper flowers as DeGannes sold copies of the book for $12 with all of the profits going to Wordsworth. Students took to the stage to perform some of the poetry the girls had written.

Junior Laura Mosco said she felt as if there were universal themes in the poetry that she could relate to, and she thought it was beautiful how people responded to the poetry.

“I think everyone’s felt pain, but not quite the way these girls have,” Mosco said.

After the event, Guarino said she received numerous messages from people in the audience who felt moved by the poetry read at the event. Guarino said she found this especially satisfying because she feels as though the girls’ poetry is effectively challenging people to see the world differently.

While people often think about people suffering in other countries, there are also people suffering closer by than people sometimes realize, Guarino said.

“Philadelphia is right in our backyard,” Guarino said.

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