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Katie Leimkeuhler, Writopia’s Chicago branch manager, on the power of the written word

Katie Leimkeuhler

Katie Leimkeuhler

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Updated: December 17, 2013 3:28PM

Growing up, my English and writing teachers were my biggest heroes. They encouraged me and hundreds of other students to discover a love for words and ways to express ourselves.

Now, I’m honored to be in a position to inspire a new generation of writers through Writopia Lab, which launched its Chicago branch in Lincoln Park this summer. Writopia is a nonprofit dedicated to helping students ages 8 to 18 develop their critical thinking skills and writing talents through after-school and in-school workshops. Each workshop is limited to six students to maximize one-on-one time with the instructors, all of whom are published authors and professionally produced playwrights.

Every instructor has at least one student who they’ll never forget. One who sticks out in my mind is an exceptional, bright-eyed 8-year-old girl. She’d been suffering from panic attacks at school as a result of the demanding expectations of the teachers and the social pressure of fitting in with the students. The classroom was a nightmare for her, and when the anxiety became too overwhelming, she left. For two years, she was confined to a homeschool setting, secluded from her peers. She didn’t play sports or participate in social activities with other kids her age; she had deep knots in her stomach, quivering hands and mental unrest.

Needless to say, she arrived at Writopia apprehensive about being in another educational and social setting. She was quiet, meek and unsure of herself. At first, she didn’t participate, but merely observed the other students, who openly shared their stories and writing with each other.

But gradually, something changed. She laughed at a funny story, she made a friend who shared her love for mysteries, she befriended an instructor who was nothing but kind and encouraging — and finally, the walls around her crumbled. She had found a safe place. She saw that it was OK to say something out loud, that no one would judge her. She watched her words on paper come to life as she wrote a story not with directions from an instructor, but from her own mind.

We worked together on developing the plot in her mystery, which involved a little girl befriending a ghost who watched over her, keeping away attackers in the night. Each time we met and she realized that she could choose how the story unfolded, her eyes lit up. The story was hers. There were no rules to follow, no demands that needed to be met. She was entirely free to be herself.

She not only honed her writing skills — she transformed. By the end of her summer camp session, she had rejoined sports teams, had new friends and was ready to return to school for the first time in two years.

She isn’t the only student whose life has been changed because of our workshops. Each of our students enters at a different level and leaves with polished, original prose that they are encouraged to share at student readings as well as publish in Writopia’s literary magazine, The Parenthetical. Our teens are famous for winning more regional and national recognition from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards than any other group of students in the country. I can’t wait to watch our Chicago branch — and its students — grow.

To participate in a free Writopia open house workshop, visit the Next Door Cafe (659 W. Diversey) from 4 to 6 p.m. Dec. 8.

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