Love, depression, hope, loss and comedy poured out on the H.L. Griffin Hall auditorium stage at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette on Thursday as a group of Lafayette high school students and teachers embraced vulnerability during the fifth annual Improving the Blank Page summer writing workshop.

Lafayette High senior Elsy Rivas, once described as one of the most reserved students in the group, spoke confidently in front of her peers and the gathered audience, channeling her freshman self into a character that allowed her to release the depression and anxiety she’d bottled up for years.

“No one understood me, and I did not understand myself…I lost myself because I gave so much away and here I am, picking myself up. Little by little. Trying,” she read in one of her first poems.

The 17-year-old Rivas was one of 10 students from Lafayette-area high schools to participate in the weeklong writing workshop. Ten Lafayette-area teachers also participated, attending the camp a week in advance to experience the exercises the students would learn to help them lead the workshop alongside the program coordinators. 

The project was offered through a partnership between the Lafayette Parish School System’s Gear Up program and the Acadiana Writing Project, a local branch of the National Writing Project that aims to improve writing education in schools and empower teachers through writing and professional development.

Lafayette Gear Up director Traci Aucoin said social-emotional development is one of the goals of the organizations’ partnership.

“Students need that belief, that rigor, that stick-to-it-ness to fight the fight to be college and career ready,” she said.

Gear Up is a U. S. Department of Education program that aims to improve low-income students’ access to post-secondary education by providing support and resources to a cohort of students over several years of their educational careers, Aucoin said.

The program is funded by federal grant dollars and local matching funds, and Lafayette was awarded its second Gear Up grant in 2014, she said.

Today, Lafayette’s Gear Up program serves approximately 3,000 juniors and seniors at Acadiana High School, Carencro High School, Lafayette High School and Northside High School, Aucoin said. The program has followed the students since they were in sixth and seventh grade at six Lafayette area middle schools — Acadian Middle, Carencro Middle, Judice Middle, Lafayette Middle, Paul Breaux Middle and Scott Middle.

The program partners with about 25 local organizations, including UL, and works to prepare students academically, emotionally and financially for the challenges of post-secondary education, she said. Much of the in-school programming focuses on academics and exposure to college and professional opportunities, Aucoin said.

Building self-confidence and the capacity for self-reflection is just as importance to student success, though, and that’s where the Acadiana Writing Project comes in, she said.

“We see that a lot of kids have a mindset that they don’t believe that they belong in post-secondary education. The Writing Project really helps to remove the barriers that they have from within that may be blocking them from believing that they can do more,” Aucoin said. 

Acadiana Writing Project co-director Toby Daspit said the program helps students break down those barriers by leading them through guided exercises that help them find their voice. This year the program theme centered on character and Daspit and co-director Josh Capps led students in exercises on screenwriting, developing mood, writing about conflict and other activities.

Each of the activities were lessons the UL professors teach their college students, Daspit said. The program attendees also spent a day with Louisiana’s poet laureate Jack Bedell, who spent individual time with each writer and led the class through exercises at the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum, he said.

Daspit said the summer camp is his favorite two weeks of the year.

“There’s no better joy than to see someone who says, ‘I can’t write’ or ‘I don’t have anything to say’ and a couple hours later they’re standing up and reading their poem,” Daspit said.

Besides opening up creatively and emotionally, creative writing also helps students improve their critical writing skills. Writing is everywhere — on standardized tests, college admissions applications and even in math and science classes — and it’s important students have as much exposure to writing education as possible, Daspit said.

Northside High School librarian Andrea Brew said she wants to help expose her students to the benefits of writing. The librarian was one of the 10 teachers that received a stipend to attend the weeklong seminars.

Brew said she feels inspired and is already brainstorming activities she can incorporate into her programming. Some ideas include a lunchtime poetry club and exploring social issues through poetry and the written word. Brew said it’s important students receive support from all school staff members, not just teachers.

“We’re an extension of the classroom. As librarians we should make sure we collaborate with the teachers to make sure we’re providing support for the curriculum they’re presenting in the classroom. It goes hand in hand. It’s a partnership,” she said.

Brew said one of her favorite parts of the week was learning about each group member’s hopes, fears, past experiences and emotions through their poetry and fiction. She said she hopes to bring those self-expression tools back to Northside High.

Seventeen-year-old Elsy Rivas was frightened by exposing her fears and emotions to the group at the beginning of the week. Rivas said she’s always loved writing and used it as a communication tool to channel her emotions and experiences but had never had the opportunity to share her love with others.

“It was a way I could open myself up. I never really got to open up to others or they didn’t understand. I was a very closed off person, so I helped myself by writing. When I felt like I was alone writing was my safe place,” Rivas said.

She realized by sharing she could connect with others who’ve lived similar experiences.

After participating in Improving the Blank Page, the senior said she’s thinking about exploring writing through post-secondary education and is considering trying to make a larger career opportunity out of the emotional outlet. 

“I feel like I opened a new chapter, a new part of myself,” Rivas said.

Email Katie Gagliano at kgagliano@theadvocate.com