2015-2016 Telling Room Annual Report


Dear Telling Room Friends and Supporters,

The theme we chose to weave through all of our programs for young writers this year was Time. Time is a current that runs through all of our lives. We keep it, make it, and schedule it. We try to contain it, slow it down, and speed it up. We tell ourselves to stay in the moment, while we work on letting it go. In our newest anthology, Once, we compiled 40 stories and poems from students making sense of time in their own unique and beautiful ways.

Westbrook High School student Alhassan Kareem wrote about waiting for his mother to arrive in the U.S. from Iraq. In his essay, the embassy tells his family she’ll be there in one month, or three. But they wait six months, then seven, and they keep waiting. His dad cooks him eggs like his mother used to, and Alhassan cleans the house and washes the dishes. He captures beautiful moments that stretch throughout the ten long months they ultimately wait for his mother’s return.

In Brian Roberts’ poem Energy, we’re reminded of how time feels the night before Christmas–how we’ve all wanted it to fast forward, and how long the night feels when we’re unable to sleep because of our excitement. Now at this moment in time, we’re compelled both to look back at the year we’ve just wrapped up, and look forward to the future of The Telling Room.

We had a very big year, with many accomplishments to celebrate. We kicked things off last fall by heading to Washington DC to accept a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award from First Lady Michelle Obama for our Young Writers & Leaders program.

In the spring, our students won 19 Scholastic Art and Writing Awards in both the Maine and national competitions, including a National Book Medal for Wilson Haim’s Young Emerging Authors book, When the Ocean Meets the Sky. Students Lizzy Lemieux and Emma Levy also took home top honors in the 2016 Maine Literary Awards, with Lizzy's book of poetry earning recognition in the adult category.

We also served a record-breaking number of students this year–from July 2015 to June 2016, we worked with almost 3,500 students throughout the state.

Now, at the start of the 2016-2017 year, we are excited to consider The Telling Room’s next chapter. After eight years with the organization, executive director Heather Davis will be moving on to explore a new career, and while she will be greatly missed, we’re happy to report that she is leaving The Telling Room in a strong and financially sound position. Our board of directors has a leadership transition plan in place, and we expect a seamless transition without any interruption to our award-winning programs and services as we look toward welcoming a new director on board this fall.

Many thanks to all of you who donated, volunteered, attended events, applauded our students, and made this one of the best years we could have imagined. Below, you’ll find student profiles, program highlights, and all the details about who we are, what we do, how we do it, and how we fund it. Thank you for being part of The Telling Room community.


The Telling Room Staff and Board


Who We Are

The Telling Room is a nonprofit writing center in Portland, Maine, dedicated to the idea that children and young adults are natural storytellers. Focused on young writers ages 6 to 18, we build confidence, strengthen literacy skills, and provide real audiences for our students’ stories through the provision of free creative writing, literacy, and arts programs for over 3,000 Maine youth each year. Since our founding in 2004, we have served over 15,000 students from all over the state, published ten major anthologies of student work with over 10,000 books in print, and grown into an award-winning nonprofit organization. We have been recognized for our achievements through awards and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, the Maine Association of Nonprofits, the Maine Arts Commission, and the Maine Department of Education’s Imagination Intensive Communities program, among many others.

We work with students who may be reluctant to write as well as those who already identify themselves as writers, including: children and young adults who are a part of Maine’s growing community of immigrants and refugees, those with emotional and behavioral challenges, students struggling in mainstream classrooms, homeschoolers enthusiastic to join a creative community, and passionate young writers who benefit from support beyond what their schools are able to provide.


Our Programs

All core programs at The Telling Room are 100% free to students and their families, ensuring that the students who need our services most – the students who are least likely to have a voice in the community – can participate. Our fun, innovative writing programs are the heart of our organization.

Through skilled, creative, and resourceful program delivery, we minimize overhead and maximize impact.

Each year, our programs are linked by a new theme, and the best student writing from the year is published in a major Anthology released every spring at a community event attended by hundreds of supporters.

We run literary Field Trips for local language arts classes that bring students to our Old Port writing center for a morning.

We visit schools to teach multi-week In School Residencies in which Telling Room writing teachers and community volunteers work in a local classroom to publish an original chapbook.

From June to August, we offer a variety of Summer Camps for writers of all ages and interests.

We teach an annual nine-month-long writing and leadership program for refugee and immigrant youth called Young Writers & Leaders.

In our Young Emerging Authors program, we host four students, selected through a rigorous application process, to write an entire book with us in a single calendar year.

Our Publishing Workshop invites current students and alums to learn publishing skills alongside professional editors and designers during the editorial and production processes of Telling Room book assembly.

And, we host weekly community Writers Block afternoons that give burgeoning writers time to work on their projects. Each session offers solo writing time, group work, and featured workshops with local artists and writers.


2015-2016 Programs at a Glance





Field Trips: 55 total programs, 123 program hours, 1105 students served

Workshops: 13 total programs, 92.5 program hours, 318 students served

Customized Programs: 26 total programs, 117.5 program hours, 686 students served

Residencies: 12 total programs, 175.5 program hours, 187 students served (and published!)

Writers Block: 3 total programs (in studio), 94 program hours, 39 students served

Summer Camps: 14 sessions, 420 program hours, 224 students served

Publishing Workshop: 2 total programs (in studio), 54 program hours, 21 students served

Young Writers & Leaders: 3 total programs (in studio), 125 programs hours, 41 students served

Young Emerging Authors: 1 total program (in studio), 87 program hours, 4 students served

*We also ran 18 events that highlighted student authors and provided 25 special programs for our students outside of regular program hours.


Our students came from:

Cape Elizabeth
Cliff Island
Coventry, CT
Frye Island
Great Cranberry Island
Isle de Haut

Lisbon Falls
Long Island
Madbury, NH
New Gloucester
New York, NY
Old Greenwich, CT
Peaks Island
Portsmouth, NH
South Freeport
South Portland


We offered services to these students with the help of the following collaborators:

Apple Inc.
Budget Fabulous Films
Cape Elizabeth Schools
Curtis Memorial Library
First Parish Church
Forecaster Newspapers
Friends of Congress Square Park
Island Institute
Jobs for Maine Graduates
Portland Ballet


Portland Museum of Art
Portland Pirates
Portland Public Library
Portland Public Schools
Portland Sea Dogs
Preble Street
Sagamore Village
Space Gallery
TedX Dirigo
Thomas Memorial Library
Two Coves Farm
WCSH Channel 6

The NAHYP Award

In November, the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities presented The Telling Room's Young Writers & Leaders program with a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, the country’s highest honor in our field. These awards recognize the country’s best creative youth development programs for increasing academic achievement, high school graduation rates, and college enrollment by engaging children and youth in the arts and humanities. The Telling Room, along with 11 other programs from all over the U.S., was chosen from a pool of more than 335 nominations and 50 finalists from all 50 states.

Iraqi student and Young Writers & Leaders alum Ibrahim Shkara and his family traveled with us to the White House to accept the award from First Lady Michelle Obama. Filmmaker Smith Galtney accompanied us on our journey to DC and, over the course of two days, shadowed Ibrahim as he navigated meetings with Senators and Representatives, the honoree dinner, media interviews, and finally, the awards ceremony. Take a look at Smith’s video in which Ibrahim describes the emotional journey to Washington and back with his family at his side:

“As I’ve said many times before, arts education is not a luxury, it is a necessity,” said Mrs. Obama at the awards ceremony. We firmly believe that to be true and we couldn't be more proud of the 100+ remarkable alums of this program. There was terrific local and national media spotlighting The Telling Room, including in the Washington Post, Huffington Post, Alternet, CCTV America, Poets & Writers, Bangor Daily News, Portland Press Herald and more.

To celebrate this distinction, we held a viewing party at The Telling Room to watch the award presentation live. The standing-room-only event included Young Writers & Leaders alums, teachers, Telling Room staff, volunteers, board members, and friends. Everyone was invited to tell the crowd what Young Writers & Leaders meant to them and nearly every student told of how The Telling Room had welcomed them, given them confidence to share, and changed their lives. Young Writers & Leaders alum Emmanuel Muya said, "The Telling Room is about love. It's about getting to know someone strange to you and about welcoming immigrants to this country from all over the world, because we're all immigrants to this country."

To further mark the occasion of the award, our publications team put together an anthology of stories and poems from the Young Writers & Leaders program. A Season for Building Houses opens a window onto today’s immigrant and refugee experience. Along their journeys to new homes in the United States, the teenage writers in this collection explore what it is to belong and to lose, to experience danger and safety, to remember and forget, and to build home after home.

This award is a great honor and we couldn't have been more proud to represent our students and our state on this occasion, but this doesn't mean that we intend to rest. We're more eager than ever to share the experience our students have with as many young Mainers as we can. We believe our community will be better for it. And while we were humbled and excited by this moment in equal measure, we want all of you who have supported The Telling Room over the past decade to know how much your contribution means to us. Whether you've invited us to your classroom to work with your students, volunteered your time to help teach, sent your child to one of our programs, bought a book, or provided financial support, you made this award happen. We can't thank you enough for being such an enormously caring and supportive community.


Program Highlights


Maddie Curtis - A Telling Room Trailblazer

Madeline Curtis could be considered our first ever Telling Room student, and she is our most tenured and certainly one of our most accomplished.  Maddie was just nine years old when she came to our inaugural Telling Room workshop, “Wharf Kitties,” taught by founder Sara Corbett and volunteer Patty Hagge. She remembers crossing Commercial Street and trudging to the pier; peeking between the towers of lobster traps, notebook in hand.

Since then, she has taken part in countless Telling Room programs, including two poetry workshops, one with Gibson Fay-LeBlanc and another with Martin Steingesser. We recall one day when Maddie was the only person to show up for Martin's poetry workshop so they sat at a table together and wrote a poem about a stampede. Maddie herself laughs, remembering this, and says, “The connections The Telling Room gives you are ridiculous. I didn't realize until I got older how many spectacular Maine writers I was introduced to at a young age.” Maddie also took photography, fiction, scrapbooking, journalism, multimedia—and more.

This summer, she was a junior counselor at Molly Haley's documentary summer camp, where she was once a camper, and was a Young Emerging Authors fellow this past year, writing a book with us at the same table where she once wrote a wild story about the lives of Widgery Wharf cats. Here is what her mentor from the YEA program, acclaimed writer Ron Currie, says about her: “Maddie Curtis embodies what can happen when a talented child encounters, early on, an organization dedicated to the sole pursuit of identifying and developing her talent. She's as fully formed a writer, at her age, as I've ever known, and there's no doubt that her long association with The Telling Room has everything to do with this fact. Would Maddie have written if not for the Telling Room? Probably, at least for a while. But I've known many good writers who have given up for lack of encouragement, validation, a sense of legitimacy.The Telling Room has provided opportunities to Maddie, and many others, during what are likely the most important years of their development on the page."

Her new book, a collection of short stories called Yellow Apocalypse, debuted this August, but she has been prolific, and has had her writing and photography published in a half dozen Telling Room anthologies and chapbooks. Outside of The Telling Room, she has been published in One Teen Story and Northern Journeys. And her accolades don’t stop there: She has been the recipient of  Scholastic Gold Key Awards in Fiction and Flash Fiction (2015), selected to attend Bread Loaf (New England Young Writers' Conference), won First Place in the Women's Literary Union annual writing contest (2015), won The Telling Room’s Founders Prize (2016), and earned several school awards for excellence in English and creative writing, including an "English Achievement Award" upon graduation from Falmouth High School this past spring.

Next up for Maddie: Stanford University. “I'm so freaking excited for college," she says. "Stanford doesn't offer a creative writing major, so I plan to major in English with a creative writing emphasis. I'm also interested in linguistics, immunology/serology, history, evolutionary bio, art history—pretty much anything but calculus. I'll try to take classes in all of those disciplines. But writing is my biggest love.”

"The Telling Room has been my second home for almost ten years now. Quite simply, it's a magical place."

The future looks bright for Maddie Curtis. She says, “I think I'm going to pursue writing as a career. If possible, I want to write more books. Novels, short stories, essays, flash fiction—anything. I'm constantly thinking up new ideas. But the most important thing will be that I'm writing.

"To be able to come to a place where the sole purpose is creative expression is something amazing, something that not every kid like me had growing up. I think I took it for granted sometimes. Now, looking at it with the nostalgia that seems to color everything, now that leaving I'm for college, I see just how lucky I was to have a place like this, and people like you all. The Telling Room helped me find my voice as a writer. It made me confident in who I am and what I can do. It introduced me to people from all walks of life, with all manner of experiences and stories. Coming to The Telling Room has made a stronger writer, but also a more compassionate person who values the power of stories above all else.”

The South Portland Inclusion Project

In this standards-aligned literacy and leadership program, we asked South Portland High School students to work in small groups to create a children’s book that told a story of inclusion, which they then shared with younger students in the district.

Building off of the themes of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s seminal TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” the high school students learned each other’s stories before crafting their own stories for younger audiences. As the students wrote their books, they gained valuable literacy skills, hitting elements of the entire writing process all the way through publication. When they finished, their books became tools for sparking important conversations with younger students in the district, and one of the high school ELL teachers is even using the books as reading texts for her newcomer high school students.

This project drew inspiration from the Many Stories Library Project (MSLP)—a “milestone learning experience (MLE)” designed by researchers at Project Zero in collaboration with teachers in Portland Public Schools as part of the World in Portland Project. The World in Portland Project focused on developing teacher capacity to teach for global competence, defined as “the capacity and disposition to understand and act on issues of global significance.” Global competence includes: investigating the world (taking an interdisciplinary approach to exploring global issues); recognizing and taking perspectives; communicating across difference; and taking informed action. The MSLP is a flexible interdisciplinary unit intended to address standards in literacy and social studies while presenting opportunities for curricular connections to art, American and world history, world languages and other disciplines.


A Season for Building Houses

Last November, we produced a new anthology to celebrate our Young Writers & Leaders program, which won a 2015 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award from the White House. We combed through five years of outstanding work by program alums to find a collection of stories and poems that reads like a journey home.

“Can you tell me what home means?” writes Iraqi-born poet Ibrahim Shkara. For Clautel Buba from Cameroon, home is a house built of bricks formed from warm clay by small hands. For Michée Runyambo, it is an uncle’s shelter for family and friends as war breaks out in Congo. For Ralph Houanche from Haiti, it is the unspoken rules in a game of soccer. For Fadumo Issack, it is the tall tree she climbs in a refugee camp in Kenya. For Amira Al Sammrai from Iraq, it is a small patch of sky. For Richard Akera, who is Sudanese but never lived in South Sudan, home is where he feels safe and loved.

The thirty pieces of poetry and prose in A Season for Building Houses open a window onto today’s immigrant and refugee experience. Along their journeys to new homes in the United States, the teenage writers in this collection explore what it is to belong and to lose, to experience danger and safety, to remember and forget, and to build home after home. We hope that this book finds its way into classrooms and homes nationwide.


The Financial Story



Huge thanks to the generous individual, corporate, and foundation donors who supported us this past year.

See our full donor list here


Anthology Project: Once

With this year’s theme, we traveled toward yet another frontier of the human imagination: TIME. We explored the theme of time both as a topic and a writing structure in all of our programs. A big part of the work we do with young people is to provide a framework for thinking about—and writing about—their lives differently, whether in relation to the larger world, their personal history, the future, their community, place, history, nature, and so forth. Writers are observers, witnesses.

This year’s theme acted as a canvas to explore the many ways we interact with time—for example, we asked: What was here before now and what will be here in the future? Or, write as yourself at ages 7, 17, and 27—what did time feel like then? What did/does/will the world look like? Or, would you rather be able to pause or rewind time? How does your daily/weekly schedule and activity affect your experience of time, and how can we unplug and tap into the more timeless elements of being human? How can you slow down time to bring more awareness and connectedness to your surroundings? What do you notice?

In addition to our two anthologies, we published 16 new books during the 15-16 school year, raising our total to over 100 publications since 2007!

There were endless possible topics, both for using the issues around time as writing prompts and conceptual frameworks, and for investigating how writers use time and related devices (pacing, structure, dialogue, scene, etc.) to tell good stories. For example, in working with immigrant and refugee youth, perhaps we asked students to think and write about how time felt or operated differently in their country of origin. How might they structure a story to reflect that difference? Each prompt encouraged young people to generate new, fresh thinking and writing about place, community, family, history, connecting across barriers, the natural world, and always, story.

Please take the time to read some of the amazing stories and poems from this project in our new Anthology: Once

To hear the authors’ stories and poems read in their own voices, check out: https://soundcloud.com/tellingroom

Our Team

Board of Directors

Susan Conley - President
Patty Howells - Vice President
Tim Schneider - Treasurer
Kim Kalicky - Secretary
Ekhlas Ahmed (incoming)
Lydia Atwood (incoming)
Chris Bicknell (incoming)
Morgan DiPietro
Dan Edwards
Brian Eng
Catherine Fisher
Anja Hanson
Lily King
Kate Swan Malin (incoming)
Maryann Shaw
Beth Stickney (incoming)
Sean Tabb
Paige E. Todorich

Advisory Board

Sara Corbett
Gibson Fay-LeBlanc
Celine Kuhn
Ari Meil
Genevieve Morgan
Michael Paterniti


Heather Davis, Executive Director Emeritus
Shazelle Goulet, Administrative Assistant
Andrew Griswold, Communications Director
Patty Hagge, Teaching Artist in Residence
Molly Haley, Multimedia Director
Molly McGrath, Publications Director
Sarah Schneider, Development Manager
Nick Schuller, Program Director
Sonya Tomlinson, Multilingual Progams Director