In a cozy office suite a half block from book behemoth Powell’s, there exists a volunteer organization dedicated to giving back a voice to the voiceless by means of free writing workshops.
The nonprofit organization WRAP (Write Around Portland) conducts these workshops for those who have fallen between the cracks of society, people who may have lost their voices in the hectic dialogue that makes up the modern world.
Volunteer facilitators conduct the workshops where they’re most needed. Liza Halley, executive director of WRAP, says the demand is great.
Workshops currently operate in prisons, substance-abuse treatment centers, senior centers, women’s shelters and low-income adult groups; and among mentally ill adults, HIV sufferers, teens from impoverished communities and similar populations.
WRAP is the realized inspiration of Halley and Ben Moorad, who until this year was co-director and is still on the board of directors. WRAP is supported solely by grants, donations and volunteer labor.
“We started Write around Portland because we believe that in order for social change to happen, in order to eradicate the inequities that happen because of class, races, gender issues, each member of our community needs to have a voice,” she said. “We use writing to carve out that space for people.”
Halley believes writing is one of the most powerful tools available for letting these unappreciated voices be heard.
“People sit down and they write for 15 minutes and all of a sudden they’ve gotten something of themselves outside of them on a page,” she said. “And then they read it out loud and other people hear it. And they feel all of a sudden like part of them is out there in the world and people are listening to them.”
In addition, she says, writers feel empowered by the creative process, coming up with something new they never thought of before. Halley has had people say things to her like, “I never knew I could do this. All of a sudden I see things in a new way. I never expected this was inside of me.”
The program started with five workshops. Both Halley and Moorad had been doing individual workshops, and they joined forces because they wanted to create something much larger.
From the beginning, she said, they had no problem finding agencies who wanted to bring writing to their communities. They visited centers or agencies and asked how many people would be interested in a workshop, and they would get upwards of a dozen interested persons.
“I think some people have always wanted to write, or they were writers and life happened. Or they never have tried it and they’re looking for a space to share something of themselves,” she said.
WRAP started with four volunteers and now comprises 80 facilitators who work with more than 650 people in the Portland area.
Workshops are 10 weeks long and all begin and end the same week, although they are conducted in widely scattered locations. Each cycle consists of 10 to 14 workshops, all facilitated by volunteers. For many participants, the most exciting thing about the workshops is the opportunity to be published.
“At the end, we invite people to submit five pieces of writing,” Halley said. “Then we publish three of those.”
The works appear in a soft-cover anthology. The fall 2002 anthology is titled “The Roots of All the City’s Lamps.” It sells for $10 and contains poems, fiction stories and essays from 10 writing groups.
This summer, the routine will be varied by having a big writing fair in a park rather than in a closed hall.
As for funding, WRAP started with about $20,000 for the year, which meant it wasn’t getting paid much. The original seed money of $13,000 came from the city’s Bureau of Housing and Community Development. This year, the budget has grown to $105,000.
“We’ve struggled to essentially make a living wage,” Halley said. WRAP is able to meet expenses and pay staff members, which includes a half-time development person, Kaarin Smith. They also have a VISTA volunteer, who does outreach in the community. WRAP also puts out information on its Web site. www.writearound.org.
Halley is excited about the fact Dave Eggers, author of “The Ice Storm,” has offered to appear as the keynote speaker for WRAP’s silent auction Nov. 10.
WRAP invites inquiries about workshops, donations, volunteering or any other participation. Office hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. The phone number is 503-796-9224.