Hans Christian Andersen, the writer of fairy tales, understood children. In his story A Great Grief, a group of kids allows their peers to see a small dog’s decorated grave for one button each. One small child is excluded because she cannot pay. As she sinks into tears, the narrator observes: “It was a grief as great to her as any grown person can experience.”
Whether a child’s pain is of the garden-variety strewn across a relatively uneventful childhood, or so great that even adults could barely cope, it is vital that it is expressed, says Helen Georgaklis, publisher of the 99 Series of self-help books and creator of a versatile literacy program, Kids Write Network. “Everything in the educational system is being cut, including guidance counselors, who really need to be there. Kids don’t have a voice. They are not listened to.”
For the last four years, Georgaklis has piloted and refined her program at several English Montreal School Board schools and the Montreal Children’s Hospital. She helps children create and publish self-help books for other children based on their personal experiences. She says that, when prompted, kids will tell you what they are going through and why they behave as they do. She believes childhood events impact long-term life choices and that in some cases her program may alert teachers or parents to intervene. At the same time, by formulating, sharing, writing, and reading their stories, kids are improving their literacy skills.
“The theory is that if we can give them this type of tool from a young age, certain ‘red flags’ not obvious today can be identified so that we can help children before they act on their choices.”
Early in 2015, the program will be the subject of a clinical study at the Montreal Children’s Hospital, documenting the five-step program to better understand children’s thinking patterns and how to implement the program as a preventative mental-health tool.
The program was first applied at the hospital in the summer of 2012 when Georgaklis was working with several children, including 12-year-old Claudia Martino. Claudia had been diagnosed with cancer at four and again a few years later and had endured a range of invasive treatments. In an interview on CBC’s Daybreak a year later, the child described her experience writing her book, My Magic Box. The title refers to the device that a nurse told her was her “magic box,” which delivers chemotherapy intravenously.
When the idea of writing a book was suggested to her, Claudia was interested. “I said yes, I would like to. I was so excited. A lot. It was really, like, emotional and kind of, a little hard.” Her answer about why she found it difficult was surprising, because it didn’t have to do with her illness.
“The hardest part was thinking about my bullying. There was this girl at school, and when I was cancer-free, she just started telling rumours about me, and saying, ‘Oh, don’t go near her, she has cancer, you could catch it.’ It was horrible. People wouldn’t come near me.”
Georgaklis recalls the incident clearly, saying the bullying had spread to Facebook. She says Claudia is the reason she brought the program to Lauren Hill Academy, Claudia’s school. “I had wanted to do the program just with her class but they said ‘do it for the entire grade 7.’” Within existing ethics classes, Georgaklis worked with 250 kids at the school and produced Stop.Think.Connect., a collaborative writing project with a page dedicated to each child’s story of a lesson learned and a message to help other children. Topics children wrote about have included bullying, death, divorce, peer pressure and self-harm.
“Defining the conflict, the resolution and sharing their moral lesson makes a child think about their own life and consequences,” Georgaklis says. Though the stories are drawn from life, they are told as fiction, with imagined characters, names and places, protecting the kids’ privacy and creating a safe space within which they can express themselves.
So far 80 books have been published, involving children from kindergarten to high school. They are available online electronically or can be purchased as hard copies on Amazon. Georgaklis welcomes volunteers to help with the hospital program, especially retired teachers and writers.
Information: 514-298-3582 or kidswritenetwork.com