Two Weeks Later by Lena Roy, Associate Creative Director of Programs, and Rebecca Wallace-Segall, Executive Director

It’s the first day of the staff retreat, 2020, March 12 to be exact. We are in the middle of nowhere in a beautiful retreat center in Connecticut, trees starting to bloom, purple crocuses pushing up their heads, reminding us that spring indeed does follow winter. COVID-19 still seems far enough away, and the impulse to come together as a team is strong enough that we haven’t canceled. We’re a small, close-knit group. Still, one of our regional managers is Zooming in because of a preexisting condition, and our team from Los Angeles has flown into the city and then turned back around and flown back home. There is passion to be together along with tension around what is to come.

We use staff retreats to look at the big picture — how can we further engage kids and our communities, how can we reach and impact more people? Last year was about meeting the demand for more Youth Leadership. This year’s retreat will be about our new Writopia Publishing Lab platform. During the retreat, we will also carve out time to develop our own writing, workshopping memoir, one act plays, poetry, and fiction.

But after the first day of the retreat, we sleep uneasily because we have heard about so many more school closures in the New York Metro Area. In the morning, we change our agenda and schedule. There is no longer space and time for big-picture thinking and lovely writing breaks. We need to immediately move from long-term visionary thinking and creative reinvigoration to short-term organizational crisis planning. 

We come together in a circle, some of us teary-eyed, everyone wanting to be part of the solution. We realize that this might be the last time together in a physical space for a long time. We realize that we won’t be with our writers in our cozy writing labs for months to come. What will this mean for those of our kids who rely on us as their main social outlet? What will it mean for our children from low-income backgrounds who don’t have laptops and reliable internet at home — and whose families may not be able to stay home with them and support homeschooling, or would face greater financial stress? What will it mean for the viability of Writopia Lab as an organization, and for the livelihood of the 27 people sitting in the room together?

We turn our agenda and attention for the day on moving to an on-line platform so that we can not only stay afloat, but also serve our mission of fostering joy, literacy and critical thinking through creative writing to kids and teens of all backgrounds. How will this work? Feeding off each other’s commitment and drive, we break into small brainstorming groups— the tech and systems people in one group, the programs people divided into others—to re-imagine and design an entire new Writopia world. When we come together a few hours later, we understand that, together as a team, we have the potential to not only keep our community intact, but also to reach new people across the country and even the world — especially those who don’t have access to a Writopia Lab brick-and-mortar lab. Zoom is going to  become our new best friend. 

A few hours later, we hear that New York City and NY State have both declared states of emergency. It won’t be long before the New York City public schools close. We have accomplished all that we can together, now it’s time to get ready to put it into practice. We pack up and leave that night, a day early. We have too much to do. We need to prepare our homes for long-term social distancing and sheltering-in-place. And we need to prepare for the immediate learning and launching of the new Writopia Lab era: online, emotionally connecting, intellectually stimulating writing workshops.    

Two weeks later, we have worked with almost 900 kids and teens across the country, and have received just as many warm smiles and relieved faces. We have loaned out laptops to those in need, extended our sliding-scale fee structure to the online space, and have developed a new a la carte online program that makes Writopia Lab especially financially accessible to those in need. We haven’t figured out how to reach every student we know; but we are reaching more and more each day.  

Two weeks later, most of us are in states that have shelter-in-place orders, and the number of those who are affected by the Novel Coronavirus has increased tenfold. We have learned of several Writopia Lab students from schools we taught at who are diagnosed with COVID-19, and some Writopia Lab students from our labs living with ill parents, fighting for their lives against COVID-19. While most of our community is healthy at home, self-quarantining without symptoms, we are listening to each other, supporting, inspiring, distracting, and entertaining each other — coming together as  an unbreakable community of creative writers and thinkers.

Two weeks later, despite the dramatic, successful move to online workshopping, we are financially hurting like so many others. But we will continue to grow and connect, finding new ways to be together and accessing the best of ourselves, even when we are processing the chaos around us. We need our creativity —  whether it be expressed through writing, dance, music, or art to connect us as humans, and we are blessed to be able to serve in this way.

Thank you to our full-time team, our instructors, our writers, and our writers’ parents for not only bearing with us, but for participating in this life-affirming movement, and for continuing to bring on the bloom of spring.

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