InsideOUTLOUD : finding freedom and healing through creative writing

By Jenuine Poetess

we wrote about freedom
him and i
next to each other on
cold metal chairs
attached to tables
affixed to the floor
[if it doesn’t move, it can’t be a weapon] 

we wrote about freedom
him on the inside
me on the free 

he wrote about life
beyond his four walls
beyond a judge and jury
beyond a CO and a watchful eye
always watching
always waiting
for him to mess up 

i wrote about life
beyond cognitive confinement
a liberation of consciousness
the incarceration of ignorance
sentences served by the masses
for life
without the possibility of parole 

we listened to each other
talk about freedom
him with one eye out the window
following a bird’s flight
high above the curling razor wire
me with two eyes on him
a boy becoming a man
finding the keys
to set himself

I wrote this poem one evening after returning from the Therapeutic Creative Writing circle I lead at a Texas Juvenile Justice Department correctional facility.  I started facilitating the InsideOUTLOUD circle in April 2016, but the conception and dream began long before—over a decade ago—and before that, the first inklings of such a program began to formulate in my mind over twenty-five years ago when I was an adolescent.

My initial rudimentary ideas started to take shape during my season of life in Los Angeles.  I was working as a mental health clinician providing therapy to teens throughout LA county in schools, community centers, and probation offices.  I often incorporated creative process into therapy sessions and saw the value of integrating various expressions into the healing process.

During this time, I was also cultivating my own craft of poetry and spoken-word arts as I engaged in the thriving poetry open mic community in East LA, Downtown LA, and Sylmar, CA.  As I became a part of different community art spaces, I saw the correlation between expressive arts and healing process unfold.  The two are undeniably and inextricably entwined.  I met one of my mentors, Luis J. Rodriguez—who is now a life-long dear friend and creative collaborator—and we talked about his experiences as a former gang member and how poetry and visual arts saved his life—literally—and lit the way for him to make a life outside the barrio.  He writes of his experiences in his two memoirs, Always Running and It Calls You Back, but beyond those books over coffee with him and Trini at their kitchen table, or over pupusas at a local cocina, we talked about the need for safe spaces of expression for youth who are inside the justice system.

I also read True Notebooks: A Writer’s Year at Juvenile Hall by Mark Salzman in which he documents his experiences of working with the InsideOut Writers program in the LA County Juvenile Justice System.  Reading his reflections and excerpts of the kids’ writings was an affirming validation of everything I had been dream-scheming over the years.  My love for the written and spoken-word arts coupled with my clinical background became the nexus for my Therapeutic Creative Writing program.

I currently facilitate this program at the Klaras Center for Families and at a Central Texas TJJD facility on a weekly basis.  We engage in creative writing—any genre, any style—off a prompt picked out of a list or bag by each of the youth.  Sometimes we do specific creative writing activities such as metaphor poems, or writing challenges such as determining a set of words that everyone has to incorporate into their story, poem, lyrics, or reflection.  There are very few rules save one most important rule: we never dis our own or others’ work.  After we write, each person is encouraged to share/read aloud their piece—myself included!  There is never a requirement to share, always an open invitation.  Part of the process is learning how to listen to each other, how to give constructive feedback—both in content and form, and how to receive the affirmations of others.

he spoke about death
dark shadows shrouding his face
 red everywhere
 blood dripping from the noose he drew around his own neck
 the word “mistake” tattooed across his self-portrait
 over and over and over again 
questions written
 around his face 
haunting him
“do i matter?”
“does my momma love me”
“who would miss me”
i choke back my tears
i am not there to cry 
he doesn’t need my sorrow
i thank him for entrusting me with his truth
i tell him what his words mean to me 
i tell him how glad i am he joins us every week
i thank him for what he teaches me
a smile breaks out across his face 
i feel it in my marrow
“I taught you something, Ms.?” he asks
“Always.” i affirm
we take turns drawing layers of a mandala 
a collaboration 
a connection 

The therapeutic element is indirectly woven into every aspect of the circle—the relationships, the process, the content.  Directly, I created over 70 intentionally directed prompts which address various aspects of life, development, feelings, and experiences to prompt reflection.  I engage conversation with these Brave Young Voices about the content that comes up in their writing, we talk about what it is like to struggle through anger, grief, injustice, family and community violence, the choices they’ve made, and the choices that lay before them.  I talk about how the practice of writing and creative expression in and of itself is a healthy coping skill.  As they write, youth learn how to find language to articulate what it is that is swirling inside them so eventually, instead of fists or f-bombs, they can use poetry, stories, and journal entries to express themselves.  We also talk about how the page can be a mirror that helps us to know ourselves more deeply and truly, and how when we know ourselves authentically, we can be more firmly grounded in the path we choose for ourselves, unmoved by peer pressure and outside influences.

At the end of a recent circle at TJJD, one of the boys said to me, “Ms.!  It’s the strangest thing I don’t really get it, I feel so much better after writing.  I was all mad before you came.  But now, it’s like all calm in here.”  He pointed to his chest and gave me a nod of approval, “You alright, Ms., you alright.”

I choked back my gratitude tears as I smiled and told him that is exactly why I come do writing circle with them.

They might make more mistakes.  They might return to the lives they lead that got them caught up in the streets.  They might struggle through the justice system into adulthood.  Poetry might not change the world.  But for a moment, every Thursday afternoon, they are free on the page.  They have hope.  They see a shining reflection of who they are and who they could be.  For a moment, there is someone who shows up in loving kindness and holds safe space for their healing through creative expression.  And to me, that is everything worth anything.

(Poems, InsideOUTLOUD, and Brave Young Voices, are original content of Jenuine Poetess © 2016).

Jenuine Poetess August 2014Jenuine Poetess is an artist, visionary, and community organizer. In 2010, she founded In the Words of Womyn (ITWOW)an international, grass-roots, written and spoken-word arts project with chapters throughout Los Angeles, CA; Waco, TX; and Lebanon.  Jenuine is the founder of Waco Poets Society and co-founder of the Central Texas Artist Collective.    She writes, organizes, and creates rooted in the fierce conviction that holding intentional space, access, and opportunity for all people to foster their creative health is a matter of justice and is a vital asset to the sustainable thriving of communities.  She currently lives and poems in Central Texas where she enjoys finding new ways to disrupt the homeostasis of her city.  You can contact her at:

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email for more information.

Janitors, jobs and priorities

By Ashley Bean Thornton

When I got home on July 12 a phone message was waiting for me – Did you see the paper?  City of Waco is thinking of outsourcing janitorial services; 22 people might lose their jobs!   Since I have been facilitating the Prosper Waco committee that is working hard to help people find exactly these kinds of jobs, I was certainly concerned.  I zipped off a note to my city council rep, the mayor, and the city manager (among others).  I’m pleased to say that all three responded quickly and thoughtfully.   Their responses all shared the same basic message – we’re trying to make wise choices about how to best use limited resources.

We, the general public, tend to want everything. We want to pay people decent wages, and we also want more and more other stuff:  Police and fire protection, street repairs, good water and utilities, parks, arts and culture, sidewalks, etc. etc. We like the comfort of the status quo, and we want the benefits that come with change.  Also, we don’t really want to pay any more in taxes.  It’s tough to choose among all these priorities.

In general, we the people of Waco, are not too keen on wrestling with the trade-offs and the exact details of how much of one thing we are willing to sacrifice in order to get some more of something else we want.  We leave these “details” to the city staff.  That’s A-OK with me.  I have all kinds of confidence in our city staff.  I believe they know a whole lot more about running a city than I do.  And, I believe they are working as hard as they know how to help us grow the city we want.  It is precisely because we trust our city officials to handle the details of these trade-offs, that it is important to communicate clearly to them what is most important to us.

I want our city leaders and staff to know that good jobs for all Wacoans is at the very top of our list of priorities.  I want them to know that, if need be, we will support decisions to go slower on some of our other city goals in order to stay true to that value.

What does outsourcing a few janitorial jobs have to do with the lofty goal of good jobs for all Wacoans?  Maybe not too much, but maybe quite a bit.  I had never thought about outsourcing much before facilitating this Prosper Waco employment committee, but as I have learned more about how it works, I worry that it can lead to a general trend of trading good jobs for bad jobs.

By “good jobs” I mean full-time work with decent pay (at least $10 an hour) and benefits such as health care and retirement.  By “bad jobs” I mean low pay, or offering only part-time work that never leads to any benefits.  “Good” jobs build up our community and help create stable families. Bad jobs contribute to destabilizing families, and destabilized families contribute to a host of deep and long range challenges for our community.

I understand that the jobs I am calling “Bad” are not bad for all people in all situations.  Too many bad jobs and not enough good jobs is the problem.  That’s why I am concerned about the possibility of trading some of our good ones for bad ones.

When I heard that the city could save $294,000 by privatizing, I wondered how a contractor would be able to do the same work for so much less.  One worrisome possible answer is that they will pay less, not offer equivalent benefits, or only let people work part time so that they never qualify for benefits.  But, that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case.  It could be that by focusing on the one core business of janitorial services contractors are able to gain efficiencies that allow them to offer lower rates to their customers while still offering their employees good jobs. The latter would be a win-win.  The former would not be a win for Waco even if it represented considerable savings to the City HR budget.

I don’t know if outsourcing these janitorial jobs is a good idea or not. That depends on the exact details of the arrangement, and those are exactly the kind of details I depend on the city staff to scout out and our elected officials to discern. I just want them to know as they are weighing these decisions that we in the community believe that a commitment to good jobs should carry a lot of weight.

The 22 janitorial jobs that started this conversation are important.  I am convinced after visiting with my Councilman, Dillon Meek, that if we do decide to outsource, the city will work hard to help those 22 people make the transition into jobs that are equivalent in terms of pay, hours and benefits.

Those 22 jobs, though, are not the whole story in regard to this notion of trading good jobs for bad. I’ll paraphrase a quote often attributed to Ghandi, “Be the change you wish to see in Waco.”  I would like to see us follow that advice in regard to how we think about city jobs.

Making sure that people who work for the city get fair pay and benefits – whether they are on the city payroll or on a contractor’s payroll — is one way we as a city show that we expect other employers in Waco to do the same.  When we are negotiating with businesses who are considering moving or expanding here, one thing we want from them is good jobs — jobs that contribute to the overall long term health of our community.  I would be proud for the city to lead the way in that regard, even if it means we have to make some tough choices about other priorities.

Ashley Thornton 3This Act Locally Waco blog post is by Ashley Bean Thornton, she works at Baylor, helps out with Act locally Waco, and facilitates the Waco Foundational Employment Network which is a part of Prosper Waco.  She likes to walk and doesn’t mind at all if you honk and wave when you see her.

 The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email for more information.






Entrepreneurs of Waco: Chariot Innovations

(Note: This post is part of a series called “Entrepreneurs of Waco.”  The series is collaboration between the McLennan Small Business Development Center (SBDC), the Professional Writing program at Baylor University, and Act Locally Waco.  The McLennan Small Business Development Center offers technical assistance, business mentoring, training, and resources for all stages of small business. For more information, visit their website:   To see all the posts in this series, click here: Entrepreneurs of Waco.  – ABT)

By Sarah Lesikar

If a music box, a scooter and a rocking horse all had a baby, it might look something like the BearBack hippotherapy device.  Sitting on four wheels, it is a black metal box with a rounded cushion, like a half barrel, on top and handle bars in the in front. A window on the side of the black box allows you to see what’s inside: gears and pulleys and cams.  The handlebars will offer extra support for a potential rider, something that will be much appreciated when those gears, pullies, and cams are set in motion…because riding the “Bearback” is going to feel just like riding a horse.

Dr. Brian Garner, a humble, soft-spoken engineer, is the founder of  Chariot Innovations, the company that is working to produce the “Bearback.” He can be found at the Baylor Research and Innovation Collaborative (BRIC), usually surrounded by BearBack parts and models.

The adventure began with Garner’s research which compared the motion pattern produced by the gait of a horse to that of a person. Using the same technology that captures human motion for movies or video games, markers placed strategically on horses and riders provided Garner with full 360-degree motion patterns of both walking horses and walking people.  It turns out that these patterns are remarkably similar.

Garner gathered this data at REACH Therapeutic Riding Center in McGregor, TX, an organization that uses hippotherapy to assist children with special needs. Hippotherapy, which uses the movement of horses, is used by occupational therapists, physical therapists, and speech-language pathologists. It can promote core strength, facilitate focus, help with balance, and build motor skills. Some swear that it also decreases seizure activity. For patients who cannot walk or who struggle to walk properly, horseback riding allows them to experience what a correct motion pattern should feel like, while building the core strength necessary to walk on their own. After realizing how helpful this motion pattern could be, Garner began creating a device that mimics the gait of a horse in order to make hippotherapy accessible to as many patients as possible.

The project began in his garage. Since then he has produced three prototypes and eventually arrived at today’s model. Despite Garner’s enthusiasm, the idea that a mechanical device like BearBack could have the same benefits as actual horseback riding might seem like a tough sell. With its spinning gears and churning pulleys, the machine looks outlandish to say the least. But according to the parents and therapists of patients like Ethan, it is already making a difference.

Ethan’s father pushes him into the barn/clinic, past the many horse stalls and tack, into a small room at the back of the stable. The cool morning air smells of hay. Amid the horse-related paraphernalia, a poster on the wall reads, “The best thing for the inside of a person is the outside of a horse.” Ethan has arrived in a high-backed wheel chair with supports on either side of his torso. In recent years his Cerebral Palsy has worsened, causing his motor function to weaken and his verbal activity to regress. His brain sometimes struggles to tell his hands what to do, and he lacks some of the strength necessary to hold his head upright. But thanks to dedicated therapists, loving parents, and Garner’s technology, things for Ethan are starting to look up.

It takes three people to get Ethan out of his chair and securely situate him onto BearBack. But soon, the therapist, Kristin, turns a knob. The machine hums to life, and Ethan gets to spend a few minutes as a cowboy. Country music from a nearby IPod fills the room, and he leans back in the saddle, like a smug star from an old western film. Kristin scolds him for his “cowboy slouch,” guiding him to correct his posture by engaging his core and oblique muscles. Kristin stands behind Ethan, keeping him securely on the saddle by holding firmly to a band that wraps around his torso, but she encourages him to make any corrections to his posture using his own grit and strength. His mom peers in from the window, making faces and waving to catch his attention, while his dad taps his fingers on Ethan’s helmet, encouraging Ethan to lift his head.

Ethan’s “noble steed” may be a tad less traditional, but his parents and therapists attest that his time on BearBack is helping him to hold up his head and to hold a standing position for longer periods of time. With Ethan’s limited independent mobility, it would be nearly impossible to transfer him onto an actual horse or to give him the necessary support while still allowing him to engage his muscles. BearBack, on the other hand, is stable, low to the ground, and accessible from every angle.

Even though it wasn’t part of the initial plan, REACH decided to keep Garner’s invention. Hippotherapy is beneficial, and it can also be fun for patients who can be overwhelmed with various therapy treatments. That’s one reason why it’s so important to make BearBack accessible to as many patients as possible. As one REACH staff member put it, they just can’t stop “using the tar outta that thing.”

In the future Garner hopes to develop an entire library of motion patterns to meet different patients’ needs. For instance, a horse’s walk is different from a horse’s trot.  An engineer at heart, figuring out the mechanics of BearBack is where Garner really hits his stride. The business portion, on the other hand—navigating bills, paperwork, and patents—he admits, “Is not my strength.” One day he hopes to bring in some people to help take over those roles.

Ultimately, for Garner, BearBack is more than an engineering challenge or business venture. It’s an opportunity to fulfill a calling. “I feel like this technology has been a gift from the Lord,” explains Garner, “and I feel entrusted with that gift; using it to help others is what really matters.”

Brian GarnerThe entrepreneur…Brian Garner grew up in Austin, Texas, obtaining degrees in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Texas in Austin.  In 2002 he joined the engineering faculty at Baylor University. He enjoys working with students at Baylor and teaching courses including Statics, Machine Design, Biomechanics, and the capstone Engineering Design course. He is blessed with a wonderful wife, Margie, and four wonderful children, Abigail, Anna, Noah, and Daniel. 

Sarah LesikarThe writer…Sarah Lesikar is an Oklahoma native studying English Literature at Baylor University, where she will be working on a thesis over Tolkien’s Trees in the fall. An avid traveler, Sarah has visited 19 countries, but she also enjoys chocolate chip cookies, all things ballet, dog-eared books, and spontaneous taco runs with friends. 

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email for more information.

Texas Tech University at Waco – Supporting Students to Achieve Four-Year and Master-Level Degrees

By Rebecca Larsen

Eight years ago I became the first person in my family to graduate from college. I vividly remember my parents’ tears and the smiles of the two professors who helped encourage, support, and guide me to graduation and opportunities beyond.  Today I work for an incredible regional campus in Waco through Texas Tech University. Texas Tech at Waco supports and connects students with opportunities in the same inspiring, specialized way that I was privileged enough to receive.

Like most of our students, I started at a community college. My courses at community college opened my eyes to the possibility of college and made me realize that I was intelligent and could excel academically given the right training. Thanks to McLennan Community College (MCC), our students begin with MCC and then transfer to Texas Tech and can finish their 4-year degree without having to leave Waco.

Tech logoIn addition to Texas Tech’s comparatively inexpensive tuition, we have multiple scholarships including one students are automatically entitled to if they’re able to keep up their GPA. A four-year Texas Tech degree averages $25,000 and many of our students have their full tuition covered between scholarships and financial aid.

We seek to support people who are living, loving, working, and raising families in Waco that want to benefit from higher education without going into significant debt. We offer flexible course schedules, including online and hybrid courses for those with hectic lives. The average age of our students is 29 and many are first generation college students. Whether you are looking to get a bachelor’s or even a master’s, Texas Tech has multiple degree plans that you can complete in Waco.

Even though I’m a new hire with Texas Tech, I can already see that students get the four-year university excitement at our Waco campus. Just last week, the President of Texas Tech University, Dr. Lawrence Schovanec, came to Waco to show his commitment to our campus. He spent hours speaking individually to our students at our Red Raider Rally.

Texas Tech does for Waco what the University of Texas at El Paso does for El Paso and did for me, and I’m honored to be a part of it. We are generously housed at McLennan Community College in the University Center and love when students stop by to learn more. So, come say hi!

Waco raiders

Rebecca LarsenRebecca Larsen is the Regional Site Manager of Political Science at Texas Tech University at Waco. She loves hearing from prospective Political Science and Public Administration students. Her email is  Facebook: Instagram:




Participants in MCC Program for Single Parents are hard-working, compassionate and driven!

By Becky Boggus

During the first week of each semester at McLennan Community College, single-parent college students in the Support and Empowerment Program (SEP) gather in a conference room for Program Orientation. Among the refreshments, name tags, and ice breaker questions, there is something deeper going on: a large group of single parents are all gathered in a room with a unifying goal of earning a college degree. It will entail a huge sacrifice of money, time, and energy – resources they are already desperately short on.

My name is Becky Boggus, and it’s my privilege to work with these amazing single-parent students at McLennan Community College in Waco. I work with students in a grant-funded program called the Support and Empowerment Program. We are federally funded by the Carl Perkins Grant and have been on MCC’s campus since 1979. Over the last 36 years, we have helped over 7,000 students.

Single-parent college students are one of the most at-risk groups of students for non-completion of a college degree. They are more likely to work while in school, be low-income, be first-generation college students, and are less likely to be college-ready upon entry.  They juggle all of the usual high-stress demands of college while also solely meeting the emotional and financial needs of a family.

Equipping and empowering single parents to complete their college education changes the trajectory of an entire family system, leaving an impact for generations. We know this first-hand because behind every parent succeeding has a child watching, learning the value of education and hard work.

Nationwide, just about 12% of single-parent community college students complete an Associate’s degree within 6 years of starting it. Yet, research demonstrates that at-risk college students often fail academically due to clusters of personal and financial barriers, rather than a lack of academic skills (Adelman & Taylor, 2008, 2010). To put it simply, the stress outside the classroom affects a student’s performance inside the classroom. A mom who can’t feed her kids will never be able to fully focus on her history exam.  Exclusively addressing academic concerns falls short of helping these students be successful.

Students who are involved in SEP are assigned an SEP Coach upon entry to the program. The coach meets with every student at least once per month to provide holistic support—from parenting advice to career counseling, community resource connections, and self-care training. They are the cheerleader, the listening ear, and often times the shoulder to cry on.  Ideally, this coaching relationship is established immediately upon entrance to college and lasts until graduation, establishing consistent care and support in a student’s life. The Support and Empowerment Program also provides various workshops throughout the semester. Students gain skills in parenting, resume-building, managing their money and stress, accessing the court system, and studying more efficiently. We are also able to provide students with monthly financial support to help them alleviate stress and make ends meet during their time as a student.

The great news about SEP is that it works. With these basic supports established, our students flourish. They graduate at rates 2-3 times the national average, report lowered levels of stress, more confidence in their parenting skills, and greater ability to communicate with their faculty members. It’s an honor to walk alongside these students as they succeed. They are the hardest-working, most compassionate, driven people I know.

Our staff serves as support to the overworked single parent.  The interventions we use are simple, intentional and relationally-driven. The students served by the Support and Empowerment Program vary widely in age, number of children, marital history, socioeconomic status, and educational experiences. Yet a common sentiment is often expressed by those in SEP: “I don’t feel alone anymore. I know I can do this.”  Investing in personal support translates into academic success and that is what SEP works to accomplish every day.

To all the people reading this who thought furthering your education was out of reach: I’m here to tell you that it’s not!  It is never too late to take on new challenges and reach new goals; we’re doing it together at MCC and we are here to help you along the way! We can’t wait to meet you!

Want to learn more about the Support and Empowerment Program?  Call Becky Boggus at 299-8569 or Lizette LaStrape at 299-8600. To learn more about the Success Coach Program at MCC, call 299-UCAN (8226).

Becky BoggusBecky Boggus is a Social Worker, a pastor’s wife, a mom, and a believer in education and strengthening Waco families.  You can probably find her anywhere outside this summer: hiking in Cameron Park, chasing her kids around, and most likely eating a popsicle.

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email for more information.


For more information on how to help single-parent and at-risk college students be successful, check out these great sources:

Adelman, H.S. & Taylor, L. (2010). Mental health in schools: Engaging learners, preventing problems, and improving schools. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Corwin Press.

Adelman, H.S., & Taylor, L. (2008). Rebuilding for learning: Addressing barriers to learning and teaching and re-engaging students. New York: Scholastic, Inc. This book is also available (PDF, 5.75MB) online.

America’s Promise Alliance. Don’t call them dropouts. Retrieved May 21, 2014, from

Goldrick-Rab, A., & Sorensen, K. (2010). Unmarried parents in college. Fragile families, 20(2), Retrieved from§ionid=3692

Huelsman, M., & Engle, J. (2013). Student parents and financial aid. Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Retrieved from

Miller, K. (2010). Student parents face significant challenges to postsecondary success. Institute for Women, IWPR #C376, Retrieved from

Schumacher, R. (2013). Prepping colleges for parents: Strategies for supporting student parent success in postsecondary education. Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Retrieved from