The kids from Baker Middle School 5th period writing program wanted to measure up against high schoolers in the local poetry competition Louder Than A Bomb. They felt they had what it takes but didn’t have the field trip program in place. However, they were so determined that they organized a team, one girl stepped up as the leader, and they signed up to participate on their own. They were the first and only middle school to compete against high schoolers. During the competition one student froze but his teammate came up and read his poem for him and, empowered by his friend, the young poet was able to finish his part.
The students were participants of the program facilitated by Write253, a Tacoma non-profit that offers kids from underserved neighborhoods rich and interesting writing experiences to enhance and support their school curriculums. Write253 immerses students in innovative forms of the written word through workshops, field trips, and tutoring. Coordinator Mary Fox ensures they fill an important niche for Tacoma youth education, “there are a lot of arts based programs that offer academic support, we focus strictly on writing and written expression.”
It all started in a casual conversation after an annual gathering of Tacoma Community College and high school educators who share ideas to promote student success. Hanging back after one such meeting, a few motivated friends identified a void in access to writing experiences for youth, especially the ones who experience poverty. The idea grew into a focus group with members from Tacoma Housing Authority, Tacoma Children’s Museum, and local high schools and colleges. They decided to start a local non-profit modeled after a San Francisco-based writing workshop 826 Valencia.
TCC writing instructor Mary Fox filled the role of the coordinator. “I feel like every kid deserves a champion and every kid deserves rich, fun, educational experiences,” she explained. Soon after, they got connected with Rebecca Solversen who was managing Spaceworks Tacoma, at the time a collaboration with Shunpike, a resource provider to arts non-profits. As a new initiative of the City and the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber, Spaceworks Tacoma was working on revitalizing the city by matching creative business people with affordable spaces, filling long-vacant commercial properties.
After applying to Spaceworks’ Creative Enterprise program in fall of 2011, Write253 was matched with a property in Hilltop and loved that it was in the midst of the neighborhood with kids they wanted to serve. Enrollment wasn’t a problem and they quickly attracted parents who saw the signs in the window. With a new training program for emerging arts organizations created by Spaceworks and Shunpike Write253 developed a board of directors and began fundraising right away.
Mary says that the Spaceworks property connection was crucial in the development of the non-profit. “The location has really shaped the organization,” she says, “doing it in the Hilltop had really helped us to learn about the real needs of families and students and we are connected with Peace Community Center”. In addition their current space is close to another Spaceworks participant, Fabitat, which is a great partner for Write253 because they share the goal of helping kids succeed through encouraging creative expression. After the initial 6-month term in a commercial space the non-profit signed a lease with the property owner and they have been operating in the same location for several years.
In addition to small grants, Write253 is supported by the time and generosity of its members. “We have families in poverty, but they go to Salvation Army, whether it’s for food, books or clothes, and bring them to us,” says Mary. Working with volunteer educators they currently serve 4 middle schools and 2 elementary schools aiming to extend service to one more middle school in 2017. They also provide writing workshops, after school tutoring, and a free summer camp for children in Hilltop. The children and parents feel great about the summer camp but Mary wants to offer them more. “They don’t always realize what a great experience a camp can be. I’m not satisfied. I want our kids to get the quality of programming that other kids pay for.”
Although the focus of the non-profit is providing writing assistance, they go beyond the traditional means to offer a variety of opportunities for creative expression. Together with the children they publish newsletters, their creative writing, and even podcasts. “We really want the kids’ voices to be heard and their words to be read.”
In 2015 Michael Haeflinger joined Mary Fox in coordinating Write253, including grantwriting and other administrative duties. He leads the Louder Than A Bomb project, an annual teen team poetry slam event that features poets ages 13-19 from schools and community organizations all over the South Puget Sound. Michael also co-leads writing projects at Baker Middle School and Remann Hall.
Write253 fills an important education need in Tacoma and will soon be hiring because they need a program director, as well as volunteer and publication coordinators. “It can’t go on like a guerilla project,” says Mary, “we want to get paid employees.” First they needed to get hiring policies in place and increase grant funding for the positions, and that’s where Spaceworks was able to help again.
In 2016, Write253 was invited to participate in Spaceworks’ pilot Creative Enterprise Tier III program which offers personalized business coaching, networking and a small business microgrant. They were paired with Diane Tilstra and Robin Macnofsky who have experience in grant writing and non-profit development.
“Working with coaches, Diane and Robin, helped us see more grant opportunities,” said Mary, “It’s been incredibly helpful.” The coaches also developed a system for tracking Write253’s fundraising sources and efforts. In addition to coaching the organization received a $500 microgrant that they used to commission Tacoma artist and designer Sean Alexander to create a professional branding package.
As Write253 develops, they want to provide more intentional programming, and work on quality and richness of the experiences for the kids. “My job is to make things better for all kids,” commented Mary.
The organization always accepts donations of funds, books, clothing, and food as well as volunteers and can be reached via their website www.write253.com.
Upon joining Creative Enterprise Tier III, Write253 (formally known as Write @ 253) submitted a proposal to use the $500 microgrant toward a branding package by a Tacoma artist/designer Sean Alexander. The non-profit aims to connect with a wider audience and present a professional, vibrant image to the community. They are in final stages of approving the design materials which included a shortened name, an updated logo with variations, as well as designs for print collateral including business cards, letterhead, and fliers.
Write253 is one of Spaceworks alumni that joined Creative Enterprise Tier III program that provides one-on-one coaching, peer-to-peer support, and a microgrant for growing businesses. This program has received generous support from and is powered by: