A&E

Santa Cruz’s Young Writers Program Scaling Back As Director Steps Down

Julia Chiapella has mentored Santa Cruz students in the program since 2012

This will be the first time the year-end reading for the Young Writers Program will take place online.

The year-end reading event of the Santa Cruz-based Young Writers Program taking place on May 26 is both the first of its kind and the last of its kind.

It will be the first time that the program will present its young writers—drawn from the pool of Santa Cruz County’s public schools—in a virtual format. Like almost all public events these days, the YWP reading will be presented in a “Zoom room,” an online forum in which everyone—readers and audience members—will be tuning in while sheltering in place. An estimated 18 writers, ranging from the fifth-grade students to high school seniors, will read their best poetry, short stories, and essays.

But the event will also be the last hurrah of the YWP as it has existed for the last eight years. The program has inspired and mentored close to 3,000 local middle- and high-school students, and has published 58 books and other publications featuring the work of its young writers. But it is being dramatically downsized after failing to meet funding goals that it established from its onset. The county-wide program—sponsored by the County Office of Education and supported by Arts Council Santa Cruz County, among other donors—will continue on in diminished capacity at Branciforte Middle School, no longer providing the level of mentoring it has in the past to students at the county’s other schools.

The change coincides with the retirement of the program’s director Julia Chiapella, who founded the organization in 2012 after being inspired by 826 Valencia, the San Francisco nonprofit co-founded by novelist Dave Eggers to provide hands-on instruction and tutoring programs to aspiring school-aged writers. Chiapella and her staff designed and administered the program’s efforts to recruit writers and authors from the community to volunteer in the county’s classrooms, providing feedback and role modeling for aspiring young writers. They also gave writers a chance to see their names in print for the first time through their many publications.

The YWP created such high-profile projects as the Word Lab, an after-school space for kids to gather and engage in writing-based activities, and the Chamber of Heart and Mystery, an immersive themed exhibit that was housed at the downtown Museum of Art and History for almost two years (In 2019, the Chamber moved to Branciforte Middle School, which also houses the program’s Dedicated Writing Room).

“It’s time for me to concentrate on my own writing,” says Chiapella, 65. “I’ll be working to do exactly the thing we’ve been encouraging our students to do, which is to elevate their voices and contribute to the wider literary community.” In fact, Chiapella will be one of the featured writers at a Zoom reading on June 5—which is, like the May 26 YWP event, part of the Zoom Forward! series sponsored by Bookshop Santa Cruz and the nonprofit Santa Cruz Writes.

Since the program’s beginnings, Chiapella has been an evangelist of providing contemporary kids and teens a chance to express their unique take coming of age in a unique time. And that means reorienting their writing abilities to embrace poems, short stories, personal essays, and other creative outlets.

“They do not get to do this ordinarily in their school work,” she says. “Because we’ve been able to identify the level of trauma that many kids experience as part of their normal everyday lives, and as a result of some of the things that are happening today, writing is such an incredible way for them to address it and understand that they are not alone in their struggles.”

The YWP was designed to recreate for students the precise process by which professional writers do their work, including honing an idea, working through drafts and incorporating edits, thinking about clarity and word choice, understanding the principles of effective communication, and polishing a piece into a finished product. Students also got to develop relationships with professional writers and see firsthand what the life of a writer is like. More than 500 writers and community volunteers participated as mentors in the program, logging more than 8,000 volunteer hours.

But the assistance the YWP has provided is not only for general creative purposes. The program also gives students help in writing the essays often required for college admission. (Chiapella says that the college essay portion of the program will continue with the Office of Education). The program has also formed partnerships with UCSC—60 students from the university have participated in the program over the years—and the local-based Museo Eduardo Carrillo, which has served Latinx students.

At the Zoom Forward! event, the 18 young writers will share their work, which has been recently published (or will be published soon). The topics range from the importance of music to revolutions they hope to see in the world to turning-point moments in their lives.

“It’s extraordinary to see what they’re grappling with, and how they’re processing what’s going on in their contemporary world,” says Chiapella, “because they’re dealing with things that young people typically have not had to deal with before.”

As she moves on to other endeavors, Chiapella has a chance to reflect on the thousands of kids—many now young adults—who have participated in the program, and how the YWP has contributed not only to creating new writers, but in helping young people grow through their struggles and challenges.

“I’m particularly proud of being able to have served those kids who exist at the margins of our schools: students of color, underserved kids, trans and queer kids. Those kids have particularly needed a voice to be heard. And I’m particularly pleased that, through the Young Writers Program, they’ve been able to find that voice.”

The Zoom Forward! Year-End Reading of the Young Writers Program takes place Tuesday, May 26, at 6pm. To participate in the free event, register at youngwriterssc.org/events-workshops.

Staff Writer at Good Times |

Wallace Baine has been an arts writer, film critic, columnist and editor in Santa Cruz for more than 25 years. He is the author of “A Light in the Midst of Darkness,” a cultural history of the independent bookseller Bookshop Santa Cruz, as well as the book “Rhymes with Vain: Belabored Humor and Attempted Profundity,” and the story collection “The Last Temptation of Lincoln.” He is a staff writer for Good Times, Metro Silicon Valley and San Benito/South Valley magazine.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Judi Grunstra

    May 20, 2020 at 4:54 pm

    I volunteered with the Young Writers Project 5 times, in different grades, and it was always gratifying. Sorry to see this program is being discontinued by the County Office of Education. Aside from interacting with the students, we got a first-hand look at the conditions in the classrooms, and definitely a new appreciation of our teachers. Thank you, Julia!

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