Rena’s Promise International Youth Writers Camp


Earlier this month I had the honour of teaching at a new summer camp for teen writers, which was held on Shelter Island, New York, from July 2-9th. Created in memory of an Auschwitz survivor, Rena Gelissen, the central character in the inspirational Holocaust memoir, Rena’s Promise, by the camp’s founder and director, Heather Dune Macadam, and endorsed by PEN America, it brought together young writers from diverse backgrounds and nationalities for a week of intensive writing workshops. They came from Los Angeles and Maryland, from disadvantaged backgrounds in Brooklyn and Queens, one girl came from the local Native American reservation. Georgia Davies, a young novelist, came from a farm in Wales. Several of the most disadvantaged received scholarships.

The longest journey was made by Jason Richardson, a 17 year old boy from Cape Town, South Africa. Jason’s story is a symbol of what the camp is all about: making the world a better place one word @ a time. Born with cerebral palsy, he grew up in challenging circumstances in Cape Town, where he attends a special needs school. To raise the money for his airfare, he went on the radio in Cape Town. The camp would not have been the same without him. Not only was he the only boy. He  lit up all our lives with his courage and humility, Obama-esque smile and street-smarts. A passionate Liverpool FC fan, Jason and I also shared many enjoyable moments discussing football, or ” soccer” as it is called over here.

In the morning, the students divided up into their areas of interest, taking classes in Fiction and The Novel, Non-fiction, Poetry and Memoir, taught by a roster of talented writers. Our ” star” teacher was Simon Van Boy, whose latest novel, Everything Beautiful Began After, was published by Harper Collins during the week of the camp. In the afternoon, there were trips sea-kayaking and to local points of interest, like the beautiful LongHouse gardens in East Hampton. Guest speakers who made the trek out from Manhattan included Persia Walker, the Harlem-based novelist, and poet, Erica Jung. Jem, the Welsh-born singer/songwriter, talked to the students via Skype about the art of song-writing and the music business. Sadlly, Dava Sobel, author of Longtitude and Galileo’s Daughter, who was due to speak, had to cancel at the last minute due to a death in the family.

I taught the non-fiction/journalism class. Most young people want to be the next JK Rowling so I had just two cub reporters. Jason, from South Africa, and 15 year old Mimi Goss, from New Jersey.Mimi wants to be a travel writer and so we worked on interview techniques, descriptive writing, setting the scene etc. I then set her a task – to write a short travel story about one of the resorts on Shelter Island, Sunset Beach, a very trendy boutique hotel & restaurant. The manager was kind enough to accept – but I am not sure he realised what he had let himself in for! Mimi went down there, accompanied by Jason and I, and interviewed the manager,notebook on knee, recorder in hand, like a true pro, using her charm and intelligence to disarm him and ask some really tough questions about the bad reviews the place had received. The result was a really good cameo portrait of the resort and I have no doubt that Mimi will go on to do great things, working for Conde Nast Traveler and other top magazines.

Jason’s dream of being an investigative journalist has not been dented by his disability. He had never been on a plane, let alone to America, so when I met him at JFK and took him into Manhattan he was thrilled. I will always remember his excitement as we crested a rise on the LIE and the city came into view, stretched across the horizon. We then drove down Broadway to Battery Park, so he could get a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty, and his eyes were out on stalks.

It was a wonderful experience to see Jason blossom during the week.For his special journalism assignment, I arranged for him to do a ride-along with the Shelter Island police. The chief, Jim Reed, was extremely kind and receptive to the idea and at 7.00 p.m one evening, a patrol car pulled into the parking lot at Quinipet , where the camp was being held, driven by officer Tom Cronin. To Jason’s delight, Tom had brought a pile of t-shirts and Shelter Island PD caps as a gift and after we had looked at those, we set off with Jason rising up front, and me and a reporter for the local paper, Carrie Anne Salvi, in the back.

I have done a fair few of these ride-alongs in my time, working with the FBI or the NYPD, for crime stories I have written, and we had all joked before we went out that the most exciting thing likely to happen in a small, rural community like Shelter Island would be a raccoon getting run over – or a cat stuck up a tree. For the first hour it looked as though that were going to be true. We worked the speed gun a bit and drove about waiting aimlessly for something to happen. Then a black SUV raced by, we gave pursuit and for the next 3 hours we were racing from incident to incident with the blue light flashing, and Jason getting his first taste of field work as a reporter, scribbling notes in his pad next to an ambulance and interviewing the police officer, Tom Cronin.From then on we were chasing from one side of the island to another, with the blue light flashing, with Jason rising up front, interviewing Tom and jotting down instant impressions of what he was witnessing. It was a memorable evening for all of us.

It had seemed, at the beginning, as though a week would be long time to keep a group of teens busy and out of trouble. But the time flew past and the week ended with the students reading their work at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor, which the owners had very kindly offered as a venue, despite the fact that it is high season in The Hamptons. The kids were awesome: such talent and poise at such a young age! And I have no doubt that  some of them will go on to become well-known writers. For them, the camp was a chance to pursue their passion with kindred spirits, in a beautiful location. Many of them have already said they want to return next year. Thanks to Heathers dedication and passion for education that is not about money and celebrities but inspiring young writers from diverse backgrounds, I think they all left feeling that their week on Shelter Island was a magical and transformative experience.

I know I did.  The talent and generosity of spirit shown by these young people from diverse backgrounds and countries will live long in my memory as one of the most enjoyable, and rewarding, things I have done in my career. I am already looking forward to 2012.http://renaspromisecamp.wordpress.com/

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