"I love words, I love writing, I love books," says Beth Ketcher, executive director of StudioSTL, a youth-focused writing community nestled in a small studio at the Centene Center for Arts and Education in midtown St. Louis.
An area native who now lives in Webster Groves, Ketcher was an attorney until 2004, specializing in commercial litigation. "Law was a good fit, in that I was using words," she explains. "I excelled because I could write. Everything else [in law] was not for me."
Then Ketcher volunteered to help out in her daughter's second-grade class and discovered that the kids hadn't been imbued with any appreciation for the craft of writing. She was amazed, but she was also at a loss. What and how could she contribute?
The answer came to her when she read about 826 Valencia, a literary community that supports writing skills for kids aged six to eighteen, founded in San Francisco by author Dave Eggers and educator Nínive Calegari. "My heart skipped a beat," Ketcher says of that moment. She thought: "I want to bring this to St. Louis."
So she did.
In 2004 Ketcher set out to create what would become StudioSTL. She began, she says, by "talking about it to everyone I could." Soon StudioSTL was offering free writing workshops in the basement of a church near Ketcher's home, powered by a seven-member board of volunteers plus three volunteer workshop leaders. The group, which now includes more than 120 volunteers, moved into its current home last October. StudioSTL aims for a ratio of one volunteer to four students.
"I came out of the legal practice where people are fighting," Ketcher points out. "I'm constantly amazed at the amount of giving. [The volunteers'] capacity for good is just amazing to me." Those volunteers, she notes, are of diverse ages, backgrounds and areas of expertise — including anthropology, cultural studies, business and, of course, writing. "There's no prerequisite for writing — just love of kids," she says.
At the Clyde C. Miller Career Academy, volunteers worked with kids for two semesters starting in October 2006; the collaboration culminated in StudioSTL's first anthology of students' work. To date StudioSTL has produced three books, five newspapers and two magazines. Courtesy of the nonprofit's website, www.studiostl.org, writers can go online to submit their writing for publication.
"These kids say, 'No one's going to care about kids in the city,' but they quickly learn that [people] do," says Ketcher. "The minute [kids] walk in the door, they are writers."
StudioSTL now offers in-school and after-school programs, weekend workshops and a summer writing camp at the Centene Center. The group works primarily with the Wellston school district and in St. Louis public schools, but workshop attendees range from "Burroughs to Beaumont," as Ketcher puts it. The approach, she says, emphasizes three R's — not the ones that comprise the old cliché, but rather rich, relevant and rewarding. The mission: to discover, develop and celebrate voice.
Emma O'Brien, StudioSTL's marketing and development coordinator, shares Ketcher's passion. "If a third grader needs to learn how to write to an audience, some tutors might tell them to write a letter to their parents," O'Brien explains. "Our mentors would suggest a format like writing a letter to an alien, having to explain the intricate and vital details of their life." Adds O'Brien, who met Ketcher in 2007, volunteered for a year and then joined the staff: "Our programs are not without academic merit, but they are there to excite the writer within, not just hone the student at surface level."
Despite her love of writing, Ketcher's output these days is limited to blogging, journaling and grant-writing. All of the programs at the studio are free, which puts the burden on finding donors and selling student anthologies.
"We want them to come back without having to ask Grandma for $25," Ketcher says.
Modest about her role in building a thriving literary community for young people, Ketcher refers to herself as a catalyst, the "hub of the wheel." She's most proud, she says, of the writers themselves:
"These kids are amazing."
To learn more about Beth and her work with StudioSTL, visit www.riverfronttimes.com/microsites/beth-ketcher
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