The festivities are about to begin at Teens With a Purpose’s annual Slam Fest. Bob Marley’s reggae beat energizes the crowd as they find their seats in Chrysler Museum’s Kaufman Theatre. A boy dances in the atrium, moving fluidly with the rhythm. Event organizers conduct mic checks as competitors arrive, chatting like veterans of the stage. This diverse group of local middle schoolers has been preparing for today’s Hear This competition for months. The excitement is contagious.
Soon the theatre is full of friends, family, and supporters, and as the competition begins, the crowd grows silent. One girl is too shy to go on stage. A soft-spoken boy reads a poem about his family, and a girl spills a poem of pain and hope. A blind girl in a pretty dress is helped onstage by her school aide. She’s nervous, but she reads her poem using the braille notes in her hand. One by one the kids share their joys and their struggles, and the audience responds with enthusiastic applause. At the end of the competition, all the kids dance on stage, a wonderful mismatch of spastic flailing, giddy dance moves, and breakdancing. It’s impressive—and inspiring.
Teens With a Purpose isn’t only about poetry and slamming. Originally a ministry formed during the AIDS epidemic for at-risk youth, the nonprofit has grown into an evolving series of peer-based programs aimed at helping local kids ages 12 and up connect with their communities, learn life management skills, and channel their creativity into something positive. Deirdre Love—or Miss D, as the students like to call her—is the matriarch of TWP. Her relationship with each of the children is genuine and warm, her affection for them palpable. TWP is a safe place for kids who feel invisible, left out, and/or marginalized.
“I want all young people to feel valued. That’s from my heart,” Miss D said. “That’s why I do it.”
Artwork adorns nearly every available surface on and around the Downtown Norfolk building that TWP calls home, including a hidden gem of a portrait near the garbage cans out back painted by one of the kids. Thanks to the generous support of local businesses and individuals, TWP stays open year-round and provides homework help, meals, mentorship, and workshops for area youth. The program seems to be working: 100 percent of the kids who are accepted into the program graduate high school, and many leave with awards, honors, accolades, and boosted self-esteem. But getting these kids to that milestone isn’t easy. Some of them face harsh realities at home.
“We circle up at the beginning of all our programs and we check in. People say, ‘Why is this so important?’ It’s because you can go home and there is nobody waiting for you—no one’s going to ask you, ‘How was your day?’ Miss D said. “Sometimes when we’ve checked in, someone has shared ‘My father got shot.’ If we don’t take a minute to check in on young people’s lives, we miss out on what’s happening and what they need.” Miss D ensures that the kids always come first. “We don’t just care about art. We care about the person.”
Each program is child-centric and modified as needed to serve the developing needs of students. Not only to do the kids have access to a wide range of educational materials and assistance—instruments, art supplies, computers, quiet spaces, tutoring, books, and mentorship, TWP gets kids active in their communities with block parties, gatherings, and a growing community garden. For example, Queeriosity was established by one of the youths who saw a need for an LGBTQ-led program. That’s part of the brilliance of TWP. The programs evolve based on what the kids need as they need it.
Academic support is a crucial component for helping kids reach their goals and stay on the right path. Homework help, access to computers, and grade monitoring keep kids from getting behind. The support system at TWP is peer based, which allows students the opportunity to lead and develop lasting skills that follow them into adulthood. Donnovan Pollock, the 2017 Youth Poet Laureate, a slim 19-year-old with enviable locks, has no qualms about serving food to the other kids. Service and leadership are big components of the program, and it shows in the sense of camaraderie and goodwill the kids seem to have for one another.
However, it’s not all high-fives and pizza bagels. Some kids have behavioral needs that challenge adults and peers alike, but Miss D sees this as a perfect learning experience for everyone involved. John (name altered for privacy) came to the program a year earlier than typical because his sister was already involved with TWP, and he was really struggling at school. The siblings’ home life was tumultuous, and John couldn’t keep from getting into trouble. “He’s a cut up. He was disrespectful,” said Miss D, who had to counsel him on numerous occasions. Things got worse before they got better. John’s teen mentors frequently complained about his disruptive behavior and grew frustrated to the point where they asked Miss D to expel him from the program.
“They brought me a litany of really good reasons,” Miss D said, chuckling at the memory. “I said the world is quick to throw us away. We don’t throw people away. I told them, ‘If he succeeds, then we succeed.’ We had to live up to our own expectations.” There are still hurdles to overcome, but the group persevered, and three years later John has turned his life around and is looking forward to being a mentor himself. “That’s it,” Miss D said. “That’s the point.”
TWP is able to embrace and elevate kids who are often excluded because they are differently abled or have behavioral issues. The program has room for those with complex needs, which helps peers learn to appreciate and respect each other. Nobody is judged for being different. When a non-verbal autistic student spoke a word, it affected Miss D profoundly. They were standing in the hall where some papers were hanging.
“I was rattling on,” she recalled. “He said, ‘Beautiful.’ I had to hold myself together. If he never says another word in this space, that is painted on the walls here forever.” When Miss D chose him for a ribbon-cutting ceremony, some questioned her about it, but she insisted he was “the right person for that day.” That wasn’t the end of his progress. He began reading his poetry out loud and even slammed on stage; he is now a student at Tidewater Community College.
In TWP’s computer lab, the Hampton Youth Poets Team has been practicing for hours to prepare for the Brave New Voices competition in San Francisco this summer. The four teens have worked hard to craft their performances and poetry to reach this level. Last year they placed second in the Brave New Voices youth poetry slam. This year they hope to win the gold. The teens are eloquent and thoughtful when they speak about their future plans and the process of creating art.
Diminutive 19-year-old Dayana Lee crackles with energy when she talks about starting her own youth organization. “I’m a little crazy, so I need to do something where I can be hands on,” she said. She envisions a globe-trotting lifestyle and a best-selling book of poetry in her future. It’s hard to believe her when she says that she was reserved and shy before she joined TWP in 2013. Since that time, she has been a camp counselor and hosted at events. “Mama D gives us tasks and we go for it, we create,” said Dayana, whose young appearance belies her intensity and sharp wit.
Bishop Hagan, just 16, has a side hustle selling handmade candles on etsy.com, in addition to being involving with the writing community and slamming. While at a UVA young writers program, Bishop discovered slamming competitions and has been competing ever since. Writing has helped him tap into his emotions and deal with life. “I write when I’m feeling any sort of way on any type of topic,” Bishop said. “I find myself writing to express my individual emotions, and a lot of times on stage, the words come out how they were meant to be written.”
Nia-Naomi Johnson’s uncle got her into slamming after watching a documentary. She reached out to TWP, seeking an outlet for her art. The 19-year-old is not afraid to confront topics in her work. “We talk about things that happen in our everyday lives,” she says. “We become these poems for the sole purpose of getting the message across, to reach out to somebody who may not be able to speak on it.” Currently a student at Old Dominion University, where she majors in business and design, Nia-Naomi is using what she learned at TWP to succeed in college and beyond. “The hard work that we put into being good performers and writers translates into other areas of our lives,” she noted.
Recently TWP has been hosting Queeriosity for LGBTQ youths and their families, thanks to the efforts of Devon “Imagine” Carter. “I want to help people,” Devon said. “I understand certain struggles they go through and help people with my art. I want it to be therapeutic.” Devon spent a year and half getting the program off the ground, and at just 15 years old, he’s the youngest of the group, but he’s proven his chops and commitment to empowering youth by piloting the program.
The challenge doesn’t stop at reaching Brave New Voices. Just getting the funds together for travel fees and other expenses presents its own set of obstacles. In addition, it can be a struggle for students to get to TWP and to events, since many kids don’t have cars or reliable means of transportation to access the programs.
Time, talent and treasure—these three things are what TWP needs from the community, according to Miss D. TWP is always looking for professionals to share their knowledge with the kids in workshops. Donations are also accepted and may be made online.
What’s in the future for TWP? Miss D envisions the organization in the hands of the younger generations. “I would love to see young people who grew up in this organization take it to the next level,” she said. Considering the success that TWP is experiencing with its programs and students, the future looks very bright.
Slam Fest begins every April during National Poetry Month and is open to all. To register for events or for more information on joining Teens With a Purpose programs, events, workshops or to volunteer or donate, please visit www.twp-themovement.org, call 757-747-2679, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Leia Safshekan is a writer, military spouse, and mother, raising her family in Va. Beach. A California native, Leia likes reading and exploring nature with her family and dogs. Leia was awarded the Dickseski Prize for Fiction and is a student at ODU.