Zachary Thomas had a good idea during his sophomore year.
Three years later, he’s a JCU graduate living his passion and fulfilling the University’s mission through that same idea.
In 2016, Zach’s mind started to wander when friends told him about Carroll Ballers, the weekly mentoring program that creates relationships between JCU students and local juvenile detention center residents through the game of basketball.
He sought a way to introduce a program that harnessed his strengths as a writer. He gathered a group of students to brainstorm the concept.
Writers in Residence was born.
The concept: a group of John Carroll University students would facilitate creative-writing workshops for residents of the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center and Cuyahoga Hills Juvenile Detention Center.
The goal: the reduction of recidivism through a program of engaged learning, creative expression, peer mentorship and community-building.
He called Philip Metres, a professor in the English Department and director of the JCU Young Writers Workshop, to brainstorm. “When I met Zach, I felt as if I was discovering a famous person before he was famous,” said Metres.
Three years later, Writers in Residence is thriving at John Carroll University and expanding to other local institutions.
Each semester-based workshop runs for 10 weeks at a time and 90 minutes per session. Meetings starts with a writing exercise and then move to a specific topic – poetry, prose or other writings – for group discussion.
The student facilitators initiate dialogue with the residents using key questions: What is the central drama of the piece? What do you like about it? What do you not like about it?
At the end of each session, the students and residents eat together and talk about life.
“We have a strong no-absence policy from our student volunteers,” said Thomas. “Think about how many people have let these residents down or not shown up for them. We have to build reliability from day one.”
During week eight of the 10-week workshop, JCU students collect writing artifacts from the residents. They help to edit the work and expand the language over the last two sessions. Then, it’s time to publish.
“It’s not just one and done,” said Thomas. “We work with them to revise their work and then we publish it. We see so much joy from the residents. They see their name printed in text. There is professionalism and pride from both sides, honestly.”
After two years of running Writers in Residence as a student organization, Zach graduated from John Carroll in May 2018. Then came the opportunity he could not have imagined as a sophomore at Carroll Ballers.
“Zach saw the need to create a space for individual expression through writing, which could help these young men and women reflect and consider their lives in a new way,” Metres said. “He has the talent, passion, and drive to make it happen.”
Metres had contacted the Cleveland Foundation to see if funding would be available to continue to Writers in Residence program. In turn, the Cleveland Foundation visited a Writers in Residence workshop.
“They saw how we take a piece of poetry or fiction and relate it to humanity, to the residents’ lives,” said Thomas. “Talking about how you think and feel through a medium like creative writing has been really beneficial for them.”
Together with John Carroll, the Cleveland Foundation presented a grant to help Zach replicate JCU’s Writers in Residence program across other Ohio institutions.
Zach began combing the internet for the contact information of administrators and faculty at college and universities across the state. He also started facilitating a research project to determine the program’s effectiveness in improving literacy and developing a Writers in Residence creative writing handbook.
This spring, Writers in Residence will launch at Oberlin College. In the fall, Zach expects to expand to Youngstown State.
“Bringing Higher Education and the Criminal Justice System together is not an easy process,” he said. “There are some tedious things that I deal with now as we try to expand, but every time I walk back into a workshop with residents, I get rejuvenated.”