BY MATT SALIS

We often think of helping the marginalized and desperate in our community in terms of what we can do to save people in trouble. Help for the homeless means handouts of food and clothing. Help for battered women means protection through safe shelters. Help for those battling addiction means methadone clinics and free emergency medical care. Those services are important and lifesaving, but they do nothing to help the marginalized and desperate make strides toward a better future.

People in desperate need don’t want to be saved from the edge of disaster. They want help building skills that keep them away from the edge to begin with.

Lighthouse Writers Workshop is a Denver landmark providing training, inspiration, guidance and feedback to aspiring writers from their iconic and historic house on Race Street. Now, under the direction of Community Programs Coordinator Dan Manzanares, Lighthouse is taking what they have learned from a couple of decades in the house and engaging the marginalized and desperate out in our surrounding community. They aren’t rescuing people from the edge. They are developing writers and building confidence to help our neighbors in need help themselves.

Hard Times Writing Workshop

It started in 2016 with the Hard Times Writing Workshop at the downtown branch of the Denver Public Library. The downtown branch has long served as a bastien of warmth and shelter for Denver’s homeless population, and they are always looking for ways to provide more than just shelter. The DPL was eager to partner with Lighthouse to offer writing sessions complete with instruction and editing to give our Denver homeless community a way to express themselves.

“It is about way more than teaching writing skills,” Dan explains. “We give our writers a way to be seen, be heard and form community.” Dan says that vivid and passionate writing is only one aspect of the outcome from the weekly workshops. The confidence that the writers gain when they see their expressions and efforts transformed into a finished written project leads to an overall improvement in satisfaction. The writers often take that confidence and apply it to reentering the workforce and finding a way to get off the street and into a better personal situation.

A lot of the confidence gained comes from seeing their work published. The Denver Voice, a publication devoted to helping our neighbors who are experiencing homelessness, publishes a variety of the pieces crafted by writers at the Hard Times Writing Workshops. And the writers get paid for their work. Confidence, satisfaction, life-skills and a financial reward for their effort – you can’t argue with the success of this three-way partnership between Lighthouse, the Denver Public Library and the Denver Voice.

Dan and the team at Lighthouse have been so thrilled with the success of the Hard Times Writing Workshop at the downtown library that they have taken the format deeper into the community to serve residents at halfway houses, cancer patients at UC Health, veterans at the VA, homeless populations served by the Arvada Public Library and more with several new projects planned including one at the Denver County Jail reentry center.

Healing Writing

While the writing produced through these workshops varies from personal narrative to fictional stories to poetry, the pieces all have one thing in common. They help these writers who have faced long odds and massive personal challenges for survival to get better. Dan describes it as healing writing, and the impact it is having in our community is profound.

Dan laughs a little when I say it sounds like what started as a project for him has grown into a full-time job. “We’ve learned a lot at Lighthouse,” Dan tells me. “It is an important part of our growth to take what we’ve learned out into the community.”

Many of the “Hard Times” writers plan their weeks around the workshops, according to Dan. In addition to their regular session at the DPL downtown branch, they might attend one or two other sessions a week offered through the expansion of the program. One of the things that makes the workshops so successful is that the format is very consistent, and there is no week-to-week curriculum to be followed. 

“Each session is independently valuable,” Dan explains, meaning a writer can attend when and where they are able without missing anything or needing to catch-up to the class. The familiar format along with the professionalism of the volunteer instructors and editors dispenses with time wasted and lets the writers spend maximum effort creating and sharing their craft.

Support Lighthouse & Change Lives

Lighthouse and the Hard Times writers recently published a Community Anthology of stories, and they have had book signings and release parties making the rounds of the vibrant Denver literary community including an event at Tattered Cover. Some of the works of the Hard Times writers will be featured this month in readings at Lighthouse’s annual two week celebration of writing they call “Lit Fest.” Details and a Lit Fest schedule, as well as information about the Community Anthology, can both be found at lighthousewriters.org.

Lighthouse is a non-profit 501c3 organization bringing programs like these to our community through the support of their generous donors. Donations for the arts are sometimes considered less critical than donations to serve victims of homelessness, battery, cancer, poverty or addiction. A donation to Lighthouse at lighthousewriters.org will go to benefit all those marginalized communities and support the arts at the same time.

Dan is busy and getting busier as Lighthouse reaches further into the community, but he always has time for your questions or feedback at dan@lighthousewriters.org. 

This isn’t another story about saving people from the edge of disaster. It is about teaching life skills and instilling confidence to keep our neighbors away from the edge to begin with. Be seen. Be heard. That’s called community.

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