A group of eager kids walk through the doors of Writers’ Exchange doors and take off their coats, eager to find out what project is planned for today.
Tables are covered in writing and drawings, which according to one student, “is pretty cool because you’re not usually allowed to draw on tables,” and books are piled high near the front door.
“I like the Writers’ Exchange because everything is fun and they have lots of great projects,” said another student while doodling on a table. “There’s lots of kids and cool things like typewriters, which I’ve never seen before, and I like to write.”
Another child chimes in that they too like to write.
“We’re trying to make it fun, so that when they’re working on an activity they don’t realize they are improving their skills, they’re just having a great time,” said MacLeod, who is the program director at the Writers’ Exchange.
MacLeod flips through a guidebook written by young students at the Writers’ Exchange. The book tells tourists what sights to see in Vancouver and tips to maximizing their experience. MacLeod beams as she reads the review on Playland where the young writer recommends not wearing a hat or eating chilli prior to riding the Hellevator.
The after school program focuses on getting kids from Vancouver’s 14 designated inner city schools interested in reading and writing by any means possible. Even if those means are going on scavenger hunts, blowing bubbles or writing, directing, filming and starring in their own dramatic miniseries.
“Sometimes it takes kids a little longer to find something they really love, but once they find that book or once we do an activity about airplanes or lava they find that reading and writing is actually a really cool thing to do.”
The program has over 200 volunteer mentors – roughly one mentor for every two kids who work throughout the city, but the Writers’ Exchange on Hastings Street is the headquarters that students come to after school.
Central City Foundation donors helped transform the space into a safe, inclusive and creative place for kids to learn and grow by providing a grant of $8,000 for furnishings.
When we first opened two summers ago, they [Central City Foundation] were a huge part of making this space bright and cheerful and a safe space for kids to come,” said MacLeod. “They really helped us transform it from being a little bit dingy and grimy to this really awesome fun place.”
Inner city kids struggle with low literacy rates with 52 per cent of children meeting or not yet meeting writing expectation and 38 per cent meeting or not yet meeting writing expectations.
The key to reaching the students, said MacLeod, is having a space where students can feel safe to express themselves creatively as well as tapping into their interests and tailoring projects around what excites them, which is not possible in the current public school system.
“Class sizes are really big right now and it’s not the teacher’s fault that they can’t spend individual time with kids, but we have so many amazing volunteers that we can do a lot more one on one,” said MacLeod.
For MacLeod the most important story is the evolution she sees in the students who come through the door every day from shy kids, to outgoing creative forces.
“Seeing kids who used to be really embarrassed about sharing their work and were reluctant to be expressive because they didn’t want people to judge them, who are now writing extremely creative pieces and are more than willing to share their work is incredible,” said MacLeod.