KENWOOD — Long before she was a published author, Jae’la Leavy learned that writing her emotions down was a deceptively simple way to cope with her life’s ups and downs.
“As a younger kid, I never really saw it as having a huge impact,” Leavy said. “Later on, I realized writing is a way to help me get down how I feel, so it’s not all inside. It helps me release.”
Now, the 16-year-old is passing on that knowledge through Junior Writers Block, a youth writing club she leads that debuted last month. Leavy wants the club to help fellow South Side youth realize the value of self-expression.
“I just want [attendees] to see themselves, but first they need to realize how creative they really are,” Leavy said. “We’re coming together to brainstorm and help each other grow in our writing.”
The De La Salle Institute junior’s first novel, “Unraveled,” was self-published in July and is available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. The story follows a 16-year-old girl as she explores ideas of friendship and self-love.
Leavy said her friends and peers can easily relate to the novel’s protagonist, Libby, a tough and “stand-offish” teen.
It’s common for her classmates to hide their personal struggles from others, she said. They are sometimes more interested in “staying with what’s the new cool” than exposing their true selves.
Consistent writing can chip away at that mindset, Leavy said.
She doesn’t want to push young writers out of their comfort zone too quickly, so she’s “easing into” the club by focusing on fiction writing. But attendees “can write down their life story if it helps them release what they’ve been holding in,” she said.
Though the club is for 12- to 17-year-olds, Leavy said if she had it her way, there would be no age requirement. No matter the genre or age, she is willing — and likely able — to assist beginning writers.
Beyond her fiction novel and personal journaling habit, she has a budding interest in reporting. She joined the De La Salle newspaper — which profiled her in July — and discovered the interviewing process “really helped me come out of my shell as a writer.”
“There’s different styles, and even though I wrote a book, I’m still finding mine,” Leavy said.
Four students came out to the first Junior Writers Block meeting Dec. 7, discussing their goals for their writing and the club as a whole. Leavy hopes all of them and more will return for the next meeting Jan. 18.
“It was a few people I was used to seeing, but never really knew them as well as I got to know them at the first meeting,” she said. “I wanted to be able to relate to them, so I wanted to get to know them.”
The club is hosted by the Timothy Community Corporation, which operates out of the shuttered Price Elementary School, 4351 S. Drexel Blvd.
Junior Writers Block is the organization’s only youth-led program, alongside adult health, leadership, literacy and creative initiatives.
Administrative director Deloris Neal said the club is a unique chance for South Side youth to “get energy” from a talented peer.
Leavy’s novel and love of writing “sends a message to our youth that you don’t have to wait to become an adult to achieve something,” Neal said. “By the time they are adults, they could be on their third invention or fifth or sixth book.”
A “bright and articulate” young leader like Leavy can better communicate with youth than an adult would, former Price principal Carl Lawson said.
Lawson now lives in California, but has offered to “exchange ideas and thoughts” remotely with Leavy and the club. He’s hoping other adults will offer their expertise to help guide the program too.
Kenwood is “a very educated community and it should wrap its arms around the young folks — especially the minority students, but all students,” Lawson said. “Having the writing block there, that’s perfect.”
Once the program gets into a groove, Leavy said she’ll consider longer and more frequent meetings. The end goal is for the Junior Writers Block to be an established “safe space” to write without fear of judgment.
“I do view [the club] as a form of activism, as well as an escape from the constant patterns of people turning to what they’re used to” like violence or isolation, Leavy said. “I want it to show them there’s more than what they see on a daily basis.”
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