Two vibrant energetic third graders spring out of their cafeteria lunch table seats as the after-school program counselor says it’s time to make their way toward the Austin Bat Cave Bat Mobile.
“Excuse me miss, are you the new Austin Bat Cave teacher,” Gerry, 9, asked The Utopian as he walked toward Mary Johnson, ABC’s actual volunteer.
Gerry couldn’t wait to get back inside the Bat Mobile, a short bright yellow and baby blue CapMetro bus converted into a mobile writing lab. Every inch of the mobile’s colorful walls were covered with paper bats, magical tentacles and decorative lights to resemble an underwater cave. It was a dreamscape, filled with books ranging from “Guinness World Records” to “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” sitting in little cubbies throughout the mobile. Writing prompts written on little pieces of paper were hidden in tiny spaces all over the bus for students to find and discover the beauty of creative writing.
“I wish I was in Austin Bat Cave every day,” Gerry said. “My favorite thing about writing is [that] you have to pay close attention to what you’re writing about. When you’re writing, you’re giving your hand an exercise.”
Jerry was overjoyed. Over the course of four weeks he’d worked on a spooky story about a ghost who had joined him, uninvited, in a game of Fortnite. He was eager to complete the final t
asks: selecting a title, writing a dedication and creating artwork for the cover. Above all, Gerry had to prepare to read his story in front of dozens of students and teachers.
As a nonprofit, Austin Bat Cave (ABC) provides literacy, storytelling and writing workshops for youth and adults. Heather Jones (MSSW ‘15), ABC’s program director who received her bachelor’s degree in French and comparative literature, began her journey with the nonprofit as a volunteer at Gardner Betts Juvenile Justice Center in 2011. Writing sessions with youth at the center often evoked past histories of trauma and depression and Jones sometimes didn’t know what to do in those situations.
“It was a transformative experience for me, mostly because I’d never witnessed what was happening inside a detention facility,” Jones said. “I was in many ways really concerned about a lot of the things I witnessed. I started to feel that I wanted to get involved with either preventative work or criminal justice reform to prevent kids from ever being in a situation where they’re incarcerated.”
Jones entered the Master of Science in Social Work program at UT-Austin with clear goals in mind. She wanted to learn about criminal justice reform and restorative justice practices so she could be more prepared to address the emotional and personal experiences that come up for youth while writing. As a student at the Steve Hicks School, Jones co-developed a 10-week protocol for using writing in detention facilities with her friend and teaching partner Louise Hanks (MSSW ‘15). The protocol, called Write to Restore, is used in ABC’s programs to this day.
“What we’re trying to do is help youth understand the emotions they’re feeling, process difficult experiences they’ve been through and learn positive coping skills to help them deal with stress,” Jones said. “As a social worker, I’ve realized that writing can be an effective tool for that. I want Austin Bat Cave to be a way for people interested in working on criminal justice related change to connect with youth or people who are incarcerated.”
Austin Bat Cave’s work has been made possible with help from volunteers and interns. For the 2019-2020 school year, Avery Nelson (MSSW ‘21) will serve as the nonprofit’s first official social work intern. But the Steve Hicks School’s strong ties to Austin’s restorative justice community connected Brooke Bernard (BSW ‘19) to the organization in January 2019.
As an ABC volunteer Bernard facilitated writing workshops for a diverse group of male teenagers at Giddings State School, a maximum security juvenile facility for youth who’ve committed violent crimes such as murder and aggravated robbery. Bernard used music as a way to connect with them, allowing them to pitch their favorite songs to analyze. They selected “Pride” by rapper Kevin Gates and listened to the lyrics to discuss underlying meanings of the song and how it applies to their lives. Then they began writing. The exercise brought out myriad emotions for everyone.
“I went home and cried because it was my first time interacting with youth behind bars and it was a lot,” Bernard said. “They were so real and open. You make things a
reality when you speak it out loud. You can think about it all day but when you actually speak it out, it’s a whole different thing.”
In 2019, ABC served 1,099 students and partnered with 38 schools and nonprofits to lead 57 programs taught by 167 volunteers. With much more work to do and many more communities to serve, Jones said she looks forward to exposing more youth like Gerry to creative writing.
As the final writing session of the semester came to an end, Gerry sat in a chair in the back of the Bat Mobile preparing to read his story aloud in front of The Utopian, ABC’s volunteers and one of his peers.
“Are you nervous Jerry,” The Utopian asked.
“I’m not worried, I’ve got this,” he replied.
Then he began reading.
Story and photos by Montinique Monroe