Using words to spark the imagination of children and young people

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Retired English teacher Jane Craven, above, talks about her work as a volunteer with the Fighting Words Belfast project

In 2015 I volunteered to assist with the Fighting Words Belfast Project – a creative writing centre based at the Skainos Centre in the east of the city that aims to spark the imagination of children and young people across Northern Ireland.

I had just ended a connection with a children’s centre and missed the contact with children in a learning environment. As a retired English teacher, I was also greatly interested in the experience of creating stories.

I attended a training session where I met people, young and older, students, retired people, workers whose employers encouraged participation in some voluntary work.

The session was enlightening, joyful and very encouraging. There was no doubt in my mind that I was going to enjoy this experience.

For nearly two years I have been taking part in a variety of sessions. The structure is clear, well directed and always allows for the production of amazing stories. Imagination runs away with itself and produces the funniest, strangest, most enlightening stories. The presence of an illustrator is invaluable.

But I have to say it is the illustrations produced by the children themselves that I find most wonderful.

One day a boy of about nine years of age had been having a hard time getting his story down on paper. Another boy at the table spoke with him quite a lot and with only 10 minutes left he took off. It was amazing to watch how quickly the most fantastic story flowed from his pencil.

When he was leaving I was saying goodbye and asked him how he felt. He said, “I can see my imagination and it is this big!” as he extended his arms as wide as he could. We were both delighted with ourselves .

On another occasion a girl of about 13 years of age had been very quiet through the whole writing process and had looked very serious. She had not asked anyone for any assistance. In the end she volunteered to read her story (there is an opportunity for some participants to read their stories to all the other participants). It was excellent. For the first time in the afternoon she smiled.

When she was going home I asked her if she had enjoyed the session. She said: “It is the most stressful thing I have ever done.” There was a short pause and then she said: “This is the best school trip I’ve ever been on. Can we come back?”

So as a volunteer I feel I am participating in a project which is of enormous value to the participants. It gives me the opportunity to use some of my past experience. My contribution has some value. It is also a joy to meet so many great young people.

A part of my life has been spent trying to have the world focus on the centrality of children. You could not invest enough in work such as this. And as a volunteer I have a responsibility to ensure that the children are happy, challenged and productive. But I also have the opportunity to be in the company of wonderful children and to hear and enjoy their experiences.

• Since opening its doors in March 2015 more than 4,000 young writers have been inspired and encouraged by the project’s roster of trained volunteer mentors. Fighting Words Belfast offers free creative writing workshops for school and youth groups, runs weekly after-schools Write Clubs at both Skainos and the Duncairn Centre for Culture and Arts in north Belfast, and delivers special programmes and outreach activities. Conversations between volunteers and young people are the trigger for the extraordinary story-writing journey that each young person embarks on during a workshop. Volunteers don’t need to be writers themselves (although some of them are); all that’s needed is respect for, and a capacity to enjoy engaging with, creative young minds. To find out more about Fighting Words Belfast, go to www.youngatart.co.uk/fighting-words-belfast

• To see the latest issue of VIEW, go to http://viewdigital.org/2017/06/05/latest-issue-view-celebration-volunteering/

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