When Richard Gold moved to Seattle more than two decades ago after living and studying in California’s Bay Area, he already had experience working with poetry as a form of healing.

The founder of Seattle’s Pongo Publishing Teen Writing Project, who is now newly retired, had studied English and poetry both as an undergraduate and in graduate school, and had used poetry and creative writing as tools to process his own “difficult experiences in my own childhood.”

Equipped with those tools, he founded the Pongo program, which has grown to include a board, staff and dozens of volunteers dedicated to helping at-risk youth, and which will celebrate its 25th anniversary next Thursday, Sept. 24, with a virtual event featuring a reading and Q&A from Young People’s Poet Laureate Naomi Shihab Nye.

The event is free and open to the public, but donations are encouraged. All proceeds will go toward the establishment of the Richard Gold Visionary Fund to increase Pongo’s programming reach.

“Writing had always been a personal exploration,” Gold says. When he started volunteering in schools and hospitals with children and adults who have been impacted by repeat trauma, Gold began working with psychiatrists and volunteers to develop an “intuitive, improvisational” method of using poetry as therapy and skill-building that eventually developed into the Pongo Publishing Teen Writing Project, which also publishes anthologies and hosts events.

“Multiple traumas have the impact of internal fragmentation,” Gold says. “At the same time, we intuitively know that when we tell our story we can feel better. There’s healing in that.”

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Pongo works with youth who are incarcerated, experiencing homelessness, living in psychiatric facilities or otherwise impacted by trauma. The techniques Gold developed over 25 years have, according to Pongo’s website, been replicated in similar programs nationally and globally, but at their core are quite simple.

“The most important thing we can do is listen,” Gold says. “We train our volunteers not to counsel, just to listen.”

The methods Pongo employs for creative healing include taking dictation and not focusing on spelling or grammar. Several studies conducted by University of Washington psychiatrists, among others, the program says, have found that of the 7,000-plus people Pongo has worked with in the last 25 years, many are still writing and/or have experienced positive impacts in different areas of their lives as influenced by creative healing.

With Gold retiring and a momentous anniversary approaching, it’s a special time for Pongo.

“This is our first big event,” says Barbara Green, Pongo interim director. “We want to honor Richard, who has been the lifeblood of Pongo for its 25 years, and let people know about who we are.”

“As someone who has also worked with youth my entire adult life, I am often greeted by adults who tell me how much poetry writing and poetry sharing meant to them when they were young,” says Nye, the Young People’s Poet Laureate. “So I know it matters in the long run! It is not just a passing fancy. Pongo helps encourage the truth that every voice has value; every perspective offers insight, we need to listen more closely to one another, always.”

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Maven Gardner, Pongo’s youth representative and Seattle’s 2016-17 Youth Poet Laureate, will perform at the Pongo Teen Writing anniversary event Sept. 24. (Michael B. Maine / Pongo Teen Writing Program)
Maven Gardner, Pongo’s youth representative and Seattle’s 2016-17 Youth Poet Laureate, will perform at the Pongo Teen Writing anniversary event Sept. 24. (Michael B. Maine / Pongo Teen Writing Program)

Maven Gardner, Pongo’s youth representative and Seattle’s 2016/17 Youth Poet Laureate, agrees. “[Pongo has] been a huge part of my writing,” says Maven, who will also be performing at the Sept. 24 event. “Not to mention that I found out about the Poet Laureateship through [them].”

Maven is now also a teacher, performer, speaker and freelancer. “I’m not somebody who works very well within institutions or constraints or whatnot. I do not like borders, walls or rules. I started becoming a freelance creative writing teacher/public speaker. And that was definitely thanks to Pongo. Because I wouldn’t have really had the setting to do it if not [for them]. I just kind of saw how they did it and then went with my own way from there.”

Dr. Jon McClellan, medical director at Lakewood’s Child Study and Treatment Center, one of Pongo’s flagship program sites, also has great things to say about the program. “Pongo is a therapeutic treasure for the kids that we care for at Child Study and Treatment Center,” McLellan says. “Most of the children and adolescents that we treat have severe histories of trauma. Pongo provides them with a safe, nurturing space to express their pain, hopes, fears and joy.”  

“The essence of healing is most benefited in an environment of respect, listening and caring,” says Gold. “Poetry is a wonderful vehicle for that because it allows people to speak their truth.”

According to Green, the interim director, the organization recently created an internal racial equity social justice committee which, among other things, will work to connect Pongo with larger organizations doing racial justice work and increase recruitment of volunteers of color. “We realize that youth detention is a racial justice issue,” says Green, “but as long as kids are there, we want to help them.”

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The Pongo virtual celebration is scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 24, at 6:30 p.m. The event will include a 30-minute reception with Nye from 6:30-7 p.m., followed by readings and stories until 8 p.m. For more information, go to the Eventbrite page or Pongo’s website.