Lily Oldershaw, 15, sits with her fellow classmates and instructors during a Telling Room publishing workshop in November. The program is celebrating 15 years of helping young writers. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Sara Corbett and Michael Paterniti moved to Portland in the late 1990s, bought a house and began raising a family. As their work as magazine journalists and book writers took them across the world collecting people’s stories, Portland became their anchor.

About that same time, their friend and fellow storyteller Susan Conley also moved to Maine – in her case, back to Maine. A Woolwich native, Conley was teaching writing in Boston when she became pregnant with her second son and decided it was time to come home. They were mutual friends. Corbett and Conley attended Phillips Academy at the same time, and Conley and Paterniti knew each other from Middlebury College in Vermont.

When they reconnected in Portland, they all recognized the richness of the small city’s growing racial and ethnic diversity and decided they should to use their skills as storytellers, writers and educators to encourage young people, new Mainers and others, to tell their own stories. From that ethos, the trio of writers began the Telling Room in 2004, a Portland-based nonprofit writing center with a mission of strengthening young writers by giving them the confidence and skills to speak for themselves.

“We had this idea of starting a writing program for young people to empower their stories,” Corbett said. “Instead of being journalists and telling other people’s stories, we thought, wouldn’t it be great to let them tell their own stories? Mike and I have traveled a lot and seen a fair amount of the world. We recognized pretty quickly the richness of the stories right here in this city.”

Fifteen years later, the Telling Room has become one of Portland’s cultural pillars and a national example of a successful after-school arts program. It has drawn many of Maine’s best-known and award-winning writers to work as one-on-one mentors with emerging authors and attracted the attention of former First Lady Michelle Obama, who recognized the organization with a national award in 2015.

ROOM TO SHARE

The Telling Room teaches kids how to write. More than that, it teaches them how to write how they feel and how they see themselves in the world, said Molly McGrath, the organization’s publications director. It’s an academic program that tries to reflect the soul of the kids and the context of the communities it serves. This academic year, it will give writing help to almost 4,000 students from 100 schools in 75 towns across Maine. About half of those students receive one-on-one tutoring in nine in-school and after-school programs.

In 15 years, it has worked with 28,000 Maine students, said Executive Director Celine Kuhn. Its reach extends beyond its downtown Portland hub at 225 Commercial St. Telling Room teachers and volunteers lead writing programs at about 20 Maine schools each year. It operates with an annual budget of about $834,000, a staff of 12 full-time and part-time employees. In 15 years, it has published more than 150 books by young writers, and this past summer, the Library of Congress inducted “Little Bird’s Flock,” a children’s book collectively written by a publishing workshop, into its Center for the Book.

The Telling Room is in the middle of a three-year strategic plan that calls for growth, sustainability and a general rebranding to ensure that it always connects with young people. This year, it began its first new writing program in six years, Second Story, which focuses on college-readiness, leadership skills and developing a deeper writing process, and Kuhn is working to expand after-school programs in the midcoast.

For all its accomplishments, board president Tim Schneider thinks the Telling Room is just coming into its own. He describes it as an adolescent organization at a point in its life “where we’re trying to figure out who we want to be when we grow up.”

From left, Ruby Luhrman, 13, and Ella Anderson, 16, Benedita Zalabantu, 16, and instructor Molly McGrath check in with each other and talk about how their week has been and how their writing is going during a Telling Room publishing workshop. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographe

Foremost, the Telling Room gives young people the confidence to speak up, he said. That self-confidence is important for kids in their development as engaged members of society, and it’s important for society as a whole, he said. “We need to hear from kids right now and hear from voices who would otherwise be excluded from the conversation. Their voices are uniquely powerful, and I believe strongly in the power of the youth voice.”

Schneider is 38, not a youth anymore, but young enough to know what it feels like to not be heard. He’s a lawyer, who once worked as Maine’s public advocate, representing utility consumers in proceedings before the Public Utilities Commission. He is accustomed to being the youngest voice in the room, and came to the Telling Room through a background in youth programming with the Maine Sea Coast Mission in Washington County and working with kids in Boston and Cambridge.

He’s proud of the Telling Room, because “it’s building the Maine I want to live in. … There is a perception that only one kind of person lives here in Maine. One of the reasons I was originally drawn to the Telling Room was that it elevates the voices of young Mainers from many different backgrounds, voices that might not otherwise be heard or be part of the story people tell about who Maine is.”

What unites Telling Room kids is their age. Their backgrounds are wildly diverse. Some Telling Room students are new Mainers who have taken harrowing journeys to come to a new country, learn a new language and start a life of new opportunities. Others are kids who grew up here and have lived here most of their lives. They are searching for a voice and creative outlet. Some are quiet, reticent to share. Others are full of energy.

Elkhas Ahmed credits the Telling Room with giving her a voice. She came to Portland with her family in 2005, after leaving her home country of Sudan and living for two years in Egypt. She got involved with the Telling Room in 2009 as a junior at Casco Bay High School. Telling Room teachers came to her classroom, and Ahmed’s teacher encouraged her to join an after-school program at the downtown writing center.

The experience changed her life, she said.

“Sharing my story was healing for me. When I came to the United States, I didn’t speak English. I struggled to find where I belonged. I came out of my shell at the Telling Room and shared my story and have been using this voice ever since,” she said.

Ahmed, who turns 27 this week and serves on the Telling Room board, graduated high school with honors, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Southern Maine and now teaches English at Westbrook Middle School. She’s also an activist as vice president and co-founder of Darfur Youth of Tomorrow, which raises awareness about violence in Darfur.

She has spoken about genocide at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show to discuss her life and advocacy work. “The Telling Room helped me find my passion for writing. More than helping me acclimate to a new environment, it is how I found my voice and how I found my love for writing,” she said.

A SECOND HOME

The physical soul of the Telling Room is a second-floor suite of classrooms, conference rooms and offices overlooking Commercial Street. It’s casual, like a clubhouse, with tables, chairs and bookcases scattered about, along with a life-size cardboard cutout of Michelle Obama. It feels anti-school, which is sort of the point.

The idea is to create an atmosphere that is safe, where kids can be themselves and where they can show their eccentricities and vulnerabilities and not feel threatened. Paterniti calls it “a certain kind of narrative therapy that goes on – not this terrible thing, but more, ‘This is my life.’ ”

Siri Pierce, 17, calls it “a space where people can be creative and accepted in whatever their voice may be.”

Pierce is a senior at Casco Bay High School and has been involved with the Telling Room for as long as she can remember, taking various after-school programs and participating in a publishing workshop. The success of the Telling Room, she said, is the security it provides for people to be themselves.

“Sometimes the school environment can feel less open and accepting. It can be hard for people to feel open about sharing the most vulnerable part of themselves, which can often occur through writing. The Telling Room offers a space where their voice can be heard and appreciated,” Pierce said.

The twin sisters Pie and Lulu Rasor of Yarmouth began hanging out at the Telling Room when they were in elementary school to improve their writing. They’re 18 now, off at college and out of state. Through the Telling Room’s Young Emerging Authors program, they spent their senior year of high school writing, editing and publishing their own book. Lulu Rasor wrote a book of poetry, “An Open Letter to Ophelia,” and Pie wrote a novel, “Twelve Dead Princesses.”

A young girl holds a signed copy of “Quantum Mechanics for Kids” by 13-year-old Christopher Gilber, who was part of the Young Emerging Authors program at the Telling Room last year. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

They celebrated the publication of their books with an event at Space in Portland this past summer, along with other Telling Room authors Christopher Gilbert, who wrote “Quantum Mechanics for Kids: A Humorous, Easy-to-Ready, Math-Free Book on a Very Perplexing Subject,” and Catherine Morrissette, who wrote a collection of short stories, “Songs in the Parking Lot.”

In a phone interview from Oberlin College, Lulu Rasor said she and her sister took every program available at the Telling Room. It became a second home, a place for them to hang out socially and accomplish serious academic work outside of school. Ultimately, it allowed them to grow into who they wanted to be as people and writers, Rasor said. She and her sister were engaged almost daily in the writing and editing process when they were working on their books during their senior years. Lulu Rasor worked with Maine poet Megan Grumbling (editor of the Press Herald’s Deep Water column) as a mentor. “I would check in with her about my vision,” Rasor said. “She kept me accountable and gave me support and criticism.”

Getting the book out in the world and being treated as a serious author feel like an accomplishment, she said.

For Conley and the other founders, that was always the goal – to give young people the tools they need to become confident, accomplished adults. Maybe the Telling Room could have happened anywhere, Conley said, but it happened in Portland.

Right time, right place, Conley said. The early 2000s were a vibrant time in the city. There was a lot of energy and can-do attitudes, and Portland was, and still is, swimming with professional writers. It just made sense, she said.

Conley, Corbett and Paterniti are still involved, mostly in advisory roles. They long ago turned the day-t0-day responsibilities over to others, but they’re not long removed from the early days.

“I remember when Mike and I went to coffee to first discuss this, and we were finishing each other’s sentences with what the Telling Room would be, it was uncanny. We had the exact same idea,” Conley said. “We decided without deciding. We were off and running.”


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