Faculty coordinator Jennifer Ochstein (back row, at left) gathers with Bethel students (back row, from left) Chelsea Anglin, Amber Elder, Taylor Gillam and (front row, from left) Samantha Lukas, Laura Reffey and Emily Myers at the Juvenile Justice Center in South Bend. The group meets with incarcerated girls each week as part of “Writing for Life.”

During the fall 2014 semester, a group of Bethel College writing students spent their Monday evenings giving incarcerated girls, ages 15-17, a voice through journaling and creative writing. It’s all part of Writing for Life, a volunteer-based program established at the Juvenile Justice Center (JJC) of St. Joseph County by Jennifer Ochstein, assistant professor of writing at Bethel College.

The program is modeled after Reading for Life, a nonprofit mentoring organization that teaches virtues through literature and has proven to be successful at the JJC.

Like Reading for Life, Writing for Life includes a mentoring component, and an emphasis is placed on building character and identity.

“It’s all about thinking about how experiences have shaped these girls and helping them decide what kind of person they want to become,” Ochstein says.

As part of the program, each girl is given a donated journal to write in and keep. And since the population at this short-term facility is constantly changing – the average stay is just two to four weeks – the number of participants is as well.

That’s why each session is self-contained, beginning with a discussion of what the girls like or dislike about writing. Then, Bethel volunteers talk one-on-one with the girls and do an in-class writing prompt, such as, “Write one memory that seems to dominate your life right now.”

Girls can share if they wish, and use writing prompts to express themselves throughout the week.

The results have been transformational.

“One girl was completely shut down and not at all interested, but by the end of the night, she was in tears,” says Bethel Junior Chelsea Anglin. “They’re taking something awful and turning it into something beautiful. And we’re seeing community happening through writing.”

Sean Coleman, director of detention at the JJC, says the program has been so well-received that what started as a seven-week commitment has extended to next semester.

“This is the first writing program and we’ve heard really good things about it,” he says. “The kids are engaged – we’d like it to continue as long as it can,” he says.

As part of the program, girls may choose to transform their work into creative nonfiction, poetry or memoir for publication in Bethel’s literary magazine, “The Crossings,” which will be published online this winter.

“So far we’ve received four submissions,” says senior Samantha Lukas, who serves as the Writing for Life editor for “The Crossings.” “The girls are really excited about being published.”