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Wilson: Denver’s Art from Ashes transforms pain into power in struggling youth

Poetry program helps inner city kids navigate their way past depression and suicidal thoughts

When a teen’s suicide is prevented by a notepad and a pen, you take notice.  

When a poetry program does this for more than 14,000 youth without the slightest bit of fanfare, you scratch your head. Why isn’t Art from Ashes on billboards already? Why aren’t they in every school, every youth treatment center and correctional facility in the state?  

Theo Wilson

There’s a lot of lip service in our country about caring for the mental health of young people, but who is doing the work? Who is in the trenches, face to face, with the very youth who’ve been counted out by test scores, teachers and even parents? Well, Catherine O’Neill Thorn has been for over 16 years now.  

Shortly after their fundraiser for Colorado Gives day, I sat down with her at Art from Ashes headquarters for a candid conversation about poetry, youth and possibilities. 

She’s into poetry, but she’s nobody’s wilting flower. A welcoming smile guarded with piercing eyes, O’Neill Thorn has the kind of savvy you’d expect from a woman effectively working with inner city youth for decades.  

Her accent rarely betrays her British birth, but when it does, it’s endearing. I asked her how her work with youth began.  

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“I began on the board of a residential treatment center for young male offenders, ages 11 through 18,” she says. Around that time, she had learned about poetry therapy, and was interested in trying it with the youth in that treatment center. It dawned on her, “Well, I’m already reading stories to them once a week, so why don’t I have them write poetry?”

Before long, she developed a curriculum. It caught on very quickly in youth group after youth group. According to O’Neill Thorn, whatever skepticism anyone may have had toward a poetry program being effective in the lives of tough inner city youth was quelled by the youth, themselves. 

“Young people are literally dying to talk about what’s going on for them … especially when their stories threaten the adults in their lives,” O’Neill Thorn says. 

Catherine O’Neill Thorn (Courtesy of Art from Ashes)

The idea of self-expression being a life-or-death matter shouldn’t be so hard to fathom, especially if one honestly considers the angst of their own youth.

Many of us recall the sensitive fragility of our young, raw emotions newly assaulted by a cold and unfriendly world. It seems a part of O’Neill Thorn never grew callous to the slights of life as so many adults have. In talking to her, I imagine that I am conversing with a faithful, yet wiser copy of her adolescent self.  

She doesn’t see herself as unique. She runs adult workshops with Art from Ashes with unique prompts for the adults attendees.  

“Many adults see themselves as disconnected and lonely as well,” O’Neill Thorn says. “We’ve been trained out of our creative brains by the time we’re 7 years old. Creativity is unlearned. Adults have to give them themselves permission to be creative. You have to give them permission to be wrong and take risks.”  

O’Neill Thorn says that when adults finally engage in the process, the results are life-altering.  

I began to question, “Why?” Why do simple writing prompts shift paradigms when done in the way this program teaches? It turns out that there is an underlying formula to the magic.  

Expression and connection are emphasized in setting up prompts. But the power is in the third component: Transformation.

This transformation is in crafting a new narrative about who the writer is, and their intrinsic power to be the master of their own story. Like casting a new spell over the mind, new possibilities are unlocked once the writer is aware that they can rewrite themselves.  

On Colorado Gives night, I sat in Art from Ashes headquarters in silent awe of the program. With Christmas lights, hors d’oeuvres and cookies abounding, the community of word magicians began to cast their spells of hope.  

Young people spoke of their journey through treatment for depression, and how poetry was the secret ingredient that improved their outlook and grades. Some told stories of thwarted suicide due to the power of the pen. Adults shared how much they would have loved a program like this in the turbulent tides of their youth. 

I count myself among the grown-up kids who could have used a transformational poetry program when I felt invisible, a fact I shared with the party.  

Then, O’Neill Thorn grabbed the microphone and spoke with the passion of a teenager who never gave up on her dream to change the world. When the time came to ask the audience to donate, that purity of spirit made the ask a little challenging … and I totally get it.  

When it’s your passion to help, asking for money is hard. Without it, however, the vision dies. For these young people whose lives have been literally saved by the program, survival is a must, so you ask. 

Through misty eyes, I made the decision to write this column. Art from Ashes is nothing short of magic, and it belongs to the Denver community. It is as much a diamond in the rough as the youth it serves, and I only pray this city has the good sense to keep it shining.      


Theo Wilson is a poet, speaker, activist and CNN contributor. Learn more about him at TheoWilson.net.


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