Writers' Exchange Society The
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Par Megan Jones

Literacy for All Kids

In the heart of Vancouver’s Downtown East Side, the Writers’ Exchange provides a safe space for children to have fun while practicing reading and writing skills. Dedicated to offering free youth literacy programs in the city’s most vulnerable neighbourhood, the non-profit society launched in 2011 at Queen Alexandra Elementary School. “It all started in response to some students who couldn’t read a play together,” says Jennifer MacLeod, Programs Director.

Positive feedback from parents and teachers spurred Jennifer and co-founder Sarah Maitland to expand in 2012, offering after-school sessions and summer camps at a new East Hastings Street location as well as classroom support at Queen Alexandra and 10 inner-city schools.

“I’ve always been passionate about kids’ literacy,” says Jennifer, a former magazine editor. “Starting Writers’ Exchange was the best choice I ever made.”

Today, WE connects with more than 1,000 kids each year through programs that “make literacy exciting,” says Jennifer. Central to each program are WE’s mentors, adults from the community who volunteer to “help the kids and share ideas,” says Jennifer. “We also tell kids they’re awesome — a lot,” she says.

We tell kids they’re awesome — a lot. - Jennifer MacLeod, Co-Project Director
Literacy activities and games for youth, mentoring; volunteering, tutoring, reading, writing
“The kids love writing on our typewriters,” says Jen.

Through the Wardrobe

Inside WE’s headquarters, children are made to feel not only special but also creative and inspired. The naturally lit, eclectic space features antique typewriters and stylish computers, tables with sheets of white paper, art supplies and, of course, shelves upon shelves of books.

“The kids love coming here,” says Jennifer, who hands out healthy snacks while children read with their mentors. “We aim to have one mentor for every two kids.”

After the kids read out loud while nibbling on sliced apples or cheese, it’s time for activities: from writing a story about a snowman to cutting and pasting pictures of beloved fictional characters, Jennifer “designs programming based off what kids talk about,” she says. “We integrate their ideas as much as we can,” she continues. “Or else it wouldn’t be fun!”

Literacy activities and games for youth, mentoring; volunteering, tutoring, reading, writing
Shelves of books and accessible, out-in-the-open creative supplies encourage the imaginations and creativity of the young kids who attend the Writers' Exchange.

Child Authors Take the Stage

With such an abundance of imagination, Jennifer encounters dozens of original stories on a daily basis. “We want the kids to see how great their work is, so we publish it,” she says.

At the end of each six-week-long program, staff members solicit submissions and make books “with their permission,” she says. “Kids are protective of their work,” she adds with a wink.

Thanks to design and printing support from WE’s friends, sponsors and donors, slim, brightly coloured books appear polished and “just like a real book,” says Jennifer, who explains that some children might not have books at home.

Taking the magical experience one step further, volunteers and staff host a launch complete with a microphone and audience. “We invite parents, teachers and friends,” says Jennifer. “The pride kids feel when they read is incredible.”

For children who struggle with homework or with worries at home, the Writers’ Exchange is an oasis where outside-the-box thinking is encouraged and supported. “They feel safe here,” says Jennifer. “They can relax or have crazy adventures” — just like the characters in their favourite stories.

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