- Oliver Parini
- Geoffrey Gevalt and Susan Reid
When Geoffrey Gevalt created the Young Writers Project in 2003 as a monthly feature in the Burlington Free Press, he had two goals: to teach kids to write and to showcase their work. "A lot of teachers weren't teaching writing correctly," said Gevalt, who was then the paper's managing editor.
He had first-hand experience. Gevalt recalled his son "freaking out" when his fifth-grade teacher gave him a five-paragraph essay assignment with a long list of rules. "How do you make something so boring and difficult?" Gevalt remembered thinking. "I just felt there were other ways."
Now, after 12 years at the helm of the Young Writers Project, the 67-year-old Connecticut native is ready to step down as the nonprofit's director. "For the last 26 years, I've been helping other people write," he said, "and I just miss doing my own writing."
Gevalt has several ideas, including a novel about rural Vermont in the 1890s that's been growing in his mind for nearly two decades, he said. Other possibilities include creating digital stories and a podcast.
The Young Writers Project began as a monthly newspaper feature that offered new and effective ways to instruct writing, built student engagement, and showcased the best student work. In the second year, Gevalt's oldest daughter, Anna, helped solicit and select superior student work from around the state. She and her friends set up writing prompts and a submissions system, and the Free Press published their selections.
"This proved extremely popular," said Gevalt, "and the quality of work was high, so it became the model for how we did things from then on."
Two years later, in 2006, the Vermont Business Roundtable gave Gevalt a two-year founding grant to establish the Young Writers Project as an independent nonprofit. Gevalt, who left the Free Press to assume his new role as YWP executive director, knew he'd need to turn it into a financially viable organization when the grant period ended.
Today, the project is "still alive," said Gevalt. YWP has become an informal online learning community where about 4,000 young writers from around the world showcase their creative works. The program also publishes selected works through its media partners — including eight newspapers and Vermont Public Radio — and puts out a monthly digital magazine and an annual anthology.
"The thing I am most thrilled that we've done is give so many kids a voice," Gevalt said, "[and] to have them taken seriously by publishing their work and by having so many people read it."
YWP's codirector and publications coordinator, Canadian-born Susan Reid, will succeed Gevalt as executive director on July 1. A former colleague of Gevalt's at the Free Press, she left the paper in 2007 and worked at the Essex Reporter, the Colchester Sun and the Nature Conservancy before joining YWP in 2011.
"She totally got what we're doing," said Gevalt, describing Reid as an empathetic editor who can elevate the quality of participants' writing and help them grow.
A good editor gives constructive feedback instead of simply changing copy, he added. "That attitude is essential in this job," Gevalt said. "These are formative years, and we want to develop these kids as writers."
Writing is an essential life skill, according to Gevalt. "It teaches you critical thinking ... about yourself and what you're thinking and what interests you." Studies have shown that skilled writers are far more apt to succeed in school and the workplace, he added.
For her part, Reid was "very excited" to be offered the position, she said. "I thought, Wow what a gift and what a responsibility." She described YWP as Gevalt's "baby" and credited him with making it into an "incredible community" with a "great reputation."
Many of the youth who participate have used YWP as a platform to speak on issues such as gun control, social justice and climate change, Reid noted. "We're the place where they come to do that. So that's gratifying."
Reid sees YWP as unique in the U.S. Though other states have youth-focused nonprofit writing centers, such as the Telling Room in Portland, Maine, and San Francisco-based 826 Valencia, YWP stands out because it also organizes performances and has its own publications, she said.
She plans to keep building the YWP community and growing its publications. "Kids really do love seeing their work in print," Reid said. At one point, participants had their work published in 25 newspapers in Vermont and New Hampshire, though that number has since dwindled by a third.
Reid also wants to organize meet-and-share sessions with local authors. With the help of artistic director Rajnii Eddins, she hopes YWP will attract more participants from the refugee and immigrant communities.
Soon after Gevalt announced on Facebook that he was handing over the reins to Reid, tributes started pouring in. "Years ago, Geoffrey Gevalt corralled me into working with him on an idea he had — to create a place where kids could write for one another instead of just teachers and thereby learn from one another through thoughtful feedback — and by golly, it worked," wrote Charlotte-based writer Stephen Kiernan, a former editor and reporter at the Free Press.
"I will also remember our meaningful conversations about youth activism, poetry, creative expression and many more things," wrote Lena Ginawi of the slam poetry group Muslim Girls Making Change, which YWP sponsored on its trip to a national slam competition.
"My older kids are in college now but spent time sending pieces [to YWP] in middle and high school," wrote Lisa Scagliotti, managing editor of the Shelburne News.
Far from cutting ties with YWP, Gevalt will continue to work online with students and be involved in developing new school projects in the fall.
He'll miss many things about working full time with YWP, said Gevalt. But "I will not miss trying to raise money."
Fundraising is always difficult, and competing for big grants nationally is a challenge, he continued. Some potential donors are surprised to discover that students don't learn creative writing at school, he noted. But, in Gevalt's view, "It's not fair to ask the schools to do all that work."
Reid wants to see YWP add "long-term sustaining funding" into its mixed bag of financial support from foundations and individual donors so it can continue to provide its online community, workshops and events free of charge to all. "To convey that message that writing is a joyful exercise is going to be one of my challenges," she said.