By most standards, it is a group of unlikely writers and illustrators.
Largely immigrant and economically disadvantaged, often academically unprepared, they meet each week to weave stories and paint pictures with an enthusiasm eclipsed only by their creativity.
The program that holds their attention is The Kids’ Writing Connection, a five-year-old creation of JFK Learning Center art teacher Larry Estes. Started as a desktop publication at John Runyon Elementary, it moved with Estes to JFK and has grown to encompass 20-odd children whose work is published in a professional quality magazine.
Distinct from most school writing projects, Estes’ effort pairs students with professional writers and illustrators who help the students polish their products.
Working with a professional is a requisite in Estes’ mind. Although he must contact 50 companies or individuals to find one volunteer, he remains convinced that the program works only with experienced professionals as mentors. “These people know how to do this,” he explains. “And these kids fall in love with them.”
“It’s very fun, really, really fun,” says sixth grader Jason Nava, who works with his coach every Thursday. His mentor tells him he needs more action in his story, Jason explains, and he is diligently adding details to his piece comparing schools of the past with those of today.
The result of pairing professionals with 10- to 13-year-olds can be profound. One student wrote last year about his experiences in immigrating to the United States. Told with the help of an Associated Press writer, the student reported on leaving his country with a number of relatives. By the time he arrived here, only he and his mother had survived.
“It’s important to understand,” Estes says, “I really believe children are overlooked, their products are overlooked. This is really about celebrating children.”
To do that, Estes dedicates hours to obtaining support for The Kids’ Writing Connection. His effort has paid off. Local businesses, including Don Crum and Associates, Ussery Printing Company, and Pinner Wire Company, have provided financial and technical assistance to the program.
The Dallas Press Club recognizes the top three stories in each annual publication of the magazine at a celebratory dinner and a number of others, including Rod Downey of Spaeth Communications, works behind the scenes to obtain support for the program.
Now Estes is working with teachers to incorporate the children’s writings in the JFK curriculum. He is also hoping to obtain more exposure for student creations by working with Channel 5 to develop a children’s art program.
With so much of his time spent developing and supporting children’s creative efforts, some colleagues have accused him of not having a life. “I have a life,” he says. “It’s incredibly rich because of these children.”
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