Growing a community of readers, writers and thinkers.
A group of neighborhood children mingles outside a small storefront in North Philadelphia. Despite the oppressive heat, the chattering group waits anxiously on the sidewalk. It's the night for the weekly magazine workshop hosted by Tree House Books, a local non-profit bookstore - and these kids can't wait to get inside.
An open-ended weekly gathering, the workshop attracts a crowd ranging from small children to teenagers. For an hour-and-a-half each week, the children and a handful of adults work together in a creative and respectful environment. The weekly meetings began about two years ago and haven't stopped since, according to Executive Director Darcy Sebright.
In a brightly painted red room decorated with their own art, children work on poems, plays, short stories, and paintings. Supervised by a volunteer staff composed of students and older neighborhood women, the kids are encouraged to test the limits of their imaginations. "Creatively, it's our crown jewel," says Michael Reid, program coordinator.
Every three to four months, a compilation of the best work by both children and adults is gathered into a magazine called The Avenue. It's filled with poems written by middle-schoolers, interviews with older neighborhood residents and photos of artwork created in the workshop. The third edition is scheduled for next winter.
"My real name is beautiful; Yesterday my name was princess," writes seventh grader Khala Wharton in her poem "My Real Name Is..." in The Avenue's first edition.
"Dreams are not just make believe...Put them together -- they are creativity," writes Olaniyan Adefumi in her poem "Dreams" in the same volume.
Ultimately, this is what Tree House strives to do. In operation since 2004, the store began as a community development project for the commercial district on Susquehanna Avenue. Since then, it has defined its mission "to grow and sustain a community of readers, writers, and thinkers."
In a neighborhood reputed more for its poverty than its poets, this mission can be a challenge. When two police officers were shot in the neighborhood last spring, Tree House successfully organized a film night to facilitate community discussion.
"We want to be a constant place where people explore what they know and what they don't know," says Sebright. "We want to be something that is here just in the fabric of your life."
In the future, Sebright would like to develop more adult-centered workshops, hoping that the kids' enthusiasm for creative expression gets their parents and older residents interested. "It's just a phenomenal space," says Sebright.
The magazine workshop is the longest-running of its community ventures. Student intern Danielle Mancinelli notes a remarkable change over time. "When we first started the open-mic nights, no one wanted to get up on the stage," she says. "Now a 6-year-old will go up and read a poem -- that he wrote."
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