Shortly after the organization’s creation, Ridgelines Language Arts created a program to serve LGBTQA+ youth and allies in Centre County. The program, titled Poetry for the Present, is a series of poetry writing workshops that invites young people to unleash their imaginative powers. To do so, they explore language and poetry as grounds for investigating their voices, identities, and perspectives on the world around them.

June is Pride Month and to celebrate, Centre Foundation is bringing attention to this program and how Ridgelines has created a platform for LGBTQA+ youth to share their voices in our community. Additionally, they collaborated with Centre LGBTQA Support Network to address this need.

Ridgelines partners with the Penns Valley School District’s Diversity Club so they can reach high school students in the area. This program creates a brave space for local youth to express their voices with their peers.

“The origin of this program evolves out of Abby Minor’s work with young people and doing arts with them, as well as wanting to serve a population that doesn’t get a lot of attention in rural communities,” said Jenny Hwozdek, Co-Director at Ridgelines. “It was a natural evolution out of her doing work with youth for a long time.”

It began in 2018 and over half of the program’s life cycle took place during and after the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to the normalization of Zoom that emerged during this time, Ridgelines had the opportunity to partner with teaching artists that were outside of Centre County.

“One of the life changes that came out of COVID is Zoom. We have the opportunity to partner with teaching artists based in different parts of the country who are leading voices for queer and trans poets,” said Jenny. “The program’s current teaching artist, Kayleb Candrilli, is a Whiting Award winning poet and based in Philadelphia. Thanks to the digital connections, the students can be in the same creative space as Kayleb.”

The program began with Nico Amador, who served as the teaching artist until 2021. Following Nico, Kayleb Candrilli took over as teaching artist in 2022 and will continue to do so for the 2023 program. In 2020, as a response to COVID, another teaching poet, Brooklyn Leonhardt collaborated with Ridgelines. They designed and distributed a Creative Wellness Workbook for the program’s participants.

By partnering with the Penns Valley School District’s Diversity Club, Ridgelines reaches a new audience in Penns Valley youth, which proved to be a huge success for the program.

“It has been terrific. Sarah Farrant, the liaison that we work with at Penns Valley, has been super supportive,” said Jenny. “She and Kayleb have a wonderful rapport. It has been an easy collaboration between the teaching artist and Sarah, who leads the Diversity Club. They’ve been super supportive and welcoming of this program.”

Sarah Farrant is the Diversity Club Advisor at Penns Valley School District and has been for six years. She shared what it was like working with Ridgelines and Kayleb during the latest semester.

“Twelve students and I worked with Kayleb monthly, responding to prompts or fun starters like ‘Haikubes’ for inspiration,” said Sarah. “At the end of the semester, Kayleb produced a chapbook for each student featuring the work they chose to submit bound in an old VHS tape cover. The students really enjoyed the sessions, and it was incredible to read the poetry they developed.”

Penns Valley collaborated with Ridgelines for the first time to celebrate National Coming Out Day where students from the Diversity Club represented the program. It gave the students the opportunity to have pride in their club and take the program out of the classroom and into the public conversation.

“Offering that opportunity to amplify their voices from the classroom into another event was empowering,” said Jenny.

The Poetry for the Present program has been positively impacting LGBTQA+ teens since 2018, but this past year, Jenny witnessed something special from the students.  

“This is the first year that the teaching artist made books for the students with a collection of their poems,” she said. “The students were so excited about the writing they had done that they wanted it memorialized.”

Each student received this book as a takeaway with an individualized cover.

“They wanted to have something they could hold as a keepsake,” added Jenny. “Some of the first students in the program have now graduated and wanted to have something they could take with them into the world.”

To learn more about Ridgelines and the Poetry for the Present program, visit Ridgelines’ website.

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