A Step in the Write Direction

By Danielle Krolewicz

A new program helps Fort Lyon residents tell their stories.

On a campus three hours southeast of Denver in the middle of nowhere,  men and women walk across the quad. 

Before 2010, the campus was a prison. In 2014, Fort Lyon Correctional Facility was refitted as Fort Lyon Supportive Residential Community, run by Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. Now, the classes offered here are predominately rehabilitation focused: AA, therapy, and supportive counseling. Fort Lyon is, after all, a transitional housing program for the chronically homeless, and is in part focused on helping homeless veterans with drug and alcohol addictions. 

“The individuals who come to Fort Lyon are among Colorado’s most vulnerable. Many of them have exhausted all the alternatives and have given up hope,” said William Dewey, disaster recovery and communications analyst for Colorado Department of Local Affairs. 

Now, two years after the campus opened, the first graduates are beginning to leave. But new enrollees are replacing those leaving, and with the help of Lighthouse Writers Workshop, a nonprofit literary center in Denver, new instructors are coming to the campus as well. Three in particular: the inaugural fellows of the Fort Lyon Writers Fellowship.

Photo by Jennifer Dewey, courtesy of DOLA Colorado.Dewey approached Lighthouse founder and executive director Michael Henry to do outreach at Fort Lyon. With the support of a private donor and Lighthouse funding, the writer-in-residence program was born.

 “The partnership with Lighthouse is part of a larger effort to make the arts a part of the healing process, giving the residents at Fort Lyon new tools for exploring their personal histories, and helping them develop the skills necessary for moving on and reintegrating with the larger community,” said Dewey.

For Henry, the partnership made sense. “I firmly believe that any creative act, especially writing, has therapeutic value,” said Henry. “The act of telling one’s story, when you make a narrative out of an experience you’ve had—especially one that’s had a traumatic stress on you—once you write a narrative of it, you gain control because you organize it and it ceases to have control over you.”

The partnership benefits the writers-in-residence as much as the residents. “It provided us with an opportunity to support living, working writers on their own stuff,” said Henry, “as well as work with a population Lighthouse doesn’t usually serve.”

Out of 80 applicants, three were selected for the first year. Lighthouse instructor John Cotter is gearing up for his month-long residency in February, and Shauna Craig will follow in the fall. 

The first writer to take residence at Fort Lyon was Anthony D’Aries, who directs the writing program at Regis college in Westin, Massachusetts.  

“I’ve taught writing workshops in prisons and shelters and nursing homes,” said D’Aries. “I’m a big believer in bringing education and creative writing to places that don’t have much programming and have a population who are interested in sharing their stories and communicating and expressing themselves.”

D’Aries spent ten days at Fort Lyon in December, and will return in May for another 20 days.

 “I had a good sense of how to get it started,” said D’Aries. “My main goal… was to get the word out.”

Residents of the campus self-elect to join Fort Lyon. Similarly, residents choose the classes they participate in—and they have many choices. There is a band, an art studio, community meetings, and classes offered through Otero, the local college. There are also opportunities for people to spend time working on bicycles, cutting hair, and painting murals on the campus buildings.

Though writing is not the only creative endeavor offered on the campus vying for residents’ time, D’Aries did not have difficulty recruiting students. By being present on campus, attending meals in the cafeteria, and through word of mouth, he was able to drum up interest in the workshops, and left with a core group of ten students.

“Schedules are really flexible,” said D’Aries. “For the most part, all of them were able to come every day.”

Daily workshops focused on generating new material, but, similar to a college course, time was also spent critically reading literature and discussing literary devices. 

D’Aries was not sure what to expect, but was pleasantly surprised. “Because it was voluntary, everyone wanted to be there—no one was forced to come. They were ready to go. They were eager.”

Students were eager to learn and create but also to share. Many students approached D’Aries with writing they had been working on prior to the class. Some had been given assignments for shorter autobiographical pieces for other programs and asked for help. 

Writers-in-residence split their time between meeting with residents, leading workshops, and personal writing projects. “The space is really quiet and really ideal for a writer,” said D’Aries.  He had time to finish up a few short stories and used the time to get back to his novel, documenting his experiences teaching in prisons in Boston.

Michael Henry had the chance to visit the campus in fall 2015 and described it as calm and placid, which appeals to the residents as well as fellows.

“They can take a step out of urban culture they’ve been trapped in and reset everything,” said Henry of the residents.

“Residents felt like [Fort Lyon] was really saving their life,” said D’ Aries. “They had an overwhelming positivity about it.” ■