Poetry workshops that helped traumatized Columbine students, are still helping Denver youth.

Since April 20, 1999, many have struggled to digest the day Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris took the lives of 12 Columbine High School students and 1 teacher before turning their weapons on themselves. [gallery ids="9744,9743,9742,9740"] Some call it an example of mental health medication malfunction, some look at legislation restricting assault style weapons, and others theorize that their motives were more cultural, that Klebold and Harris were victims of bullying. The truth is, Klebold and Harris both suffered from serious mental afflictions which were most likely exacerbated by external factors and each other’s illnesses, but what about those surrounding the tragedy? What about their own mental health and trauma? For years to come teams of mental health professionals beckoned to meet the needs of students, parents, and staff to help counsel them through one of the worst tragedies in recent history. Among the people to work with students after the incident was Catherine O’Neill Thorn. O’Neill Thorn had been facilitating transformational spoken word workshops at juvenile detention facilities, treatment centers, and schools since 1992. So when the Columbine tragedy occurred that’s exactly what she did. For the next 3 years, O’Neill Thorn held poetry workshops to help her students ‘express’,’connect’, and ‘transform.’ All in hopes to provide a healthy processing of the tragedy. Her students have performed live with international media in attendance, and you can read about it, and read the poems of these students, in Screams Aren’t Enough - the book O’Neill Thorn published which won the Colorado Book Award.

However, not long after she began, O’Neill Thorn’s efforts were stifled by budget cuts in state funded youth programs. She recognized that many of her students, among others, still relied on her services, so in 2003 she decided to establish Art from Ashes, a place where her service continues today. The workshops - now 25 years in the making - have been refined and are more effective than ever. Since it’s inception, Art from Ashes has served approximately 10,500 youths struggling with traumatic experiences ranging from homelessness to violence in their families. O’Neill Thorn will tell you that the secret lies in the 2 hour youth workshops, the power of language, and the therapeutic support this environment provides. Don’t call it ‘Art therapy,’  it’s much more than that - its youth empowerment. Each youth workshop facilitator is required to complete a 6 month training program to ensure that they are properly versed in the technique. Not to mention quantifiable results are constantly monitored. It’s this discipline to the form that lead Art from Ashes to win Westword’s Best Use of Poetry (2006), and Westword’s MasterMind Award for Literary Arts (2008), just to name a few. Art from Ashes has also been ranked as one of the top 50 youth arts organizations by the President’s committee on Arts and Humanity (2013).

It’s been 17 years since the tragedy at Columbine, but for many of us it’s still close in our memories. While lesser known traumas exist every day in the lives of youth it’s good to know that the people at Art from Ashes are here to lend a hand and provide an outlet for those who may be struggling. If you want to learn more, volunteer, or donate check out their website!

Interested in other stories around Colorado? Check out opioid treatment efforts in Pueblo!