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Hallmark employees help Kansas youths tap into their inner creative writer

Friday, February 21, 2014 | 5:06 p.m. CST

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Ideas were popping from young minds all around the classroom, and it wasn't even school time.

Nine elementary and middle school kids were busy exploring the possibilities of self-expression with help from some of the most creative people at Hallmark Cards Inc., The Kansas City Star reported.

The adults were volunteering their time because the children were so eager to learn that they were willing to gather at El Centro Academy for Children in Kansas City for an hour on Tuesday afternoons after already spending a day in their own classrooms.

"I think they're all getting very into it," said Carolina Fernandez, a creative writer at Hallmark and one of the volunteer mentors. "They seem very passionate about what they're doing."

The Creative Writing Project for Kids is an inspiration that came from Deanna Munoz's desire to find extra encouragement for her own daughter, who began writing four years ago, when she was 6 years old.

Munoz looked for mentoring programs but found that most were geared toward older students.

Munoz, who also works at Hallmark, mentioned her idea there, and a half-dozen people on staff agreed to donate their time for an initial eight-week program.

By the time of the first session last month, 20 children had already expressed interest in the free program.

Michael Gonzales, leader of corporate diversity at Hallmark, said the company itself is not sponsoring the writing project, but its Hispanic employee resource group embraced Munoz's idea. Some retired employees also have agreed to get involved.

At a recent session, the students split up at different tables to work on short stories, poetry, scripts or songs. At one table, 12-year-old Molly Mahoney outlined her story about aliens — including a 12-year-old girl — finding themselves stranded on Earth. Ten-year-old Priscilla Munoz had an idea about time travelers.

Mentor Andrew Blackburn encouraged both girls to further develop their plots.

At a nearby table, two boys were fleshing out the premise for a one-act play about two professional soccer players who find themselves left behind by the team bus before a big game. They hail a taxi but can't decide who should sit in the front seat with the driver.

"The whole movie is going to be an argument back and forth," said mentor Jose Huguez, a senior editor at Hallmark.

At the end of the eight weeks, the children will have pieces they can present at a showcase for their parents and others.

"I think the opportunity of expressing themselves onstage is going to be exciting for them," Fernandez said.

Project organizers hope there will be a second session of the writing program this spring.

"We would love to have programs like this on both sides of the state line," said Mike Gomez, a scheduling coordinator at Hallmark.

Munoz said she sees the program as a supplement to the education the children receive in school.

"I think they probably emphasize more on mathematics and science, which is great," Munoz said. "But I think there is a lack of emphasis on how important writing skills are."

Lisa Riggin, writing director at Hallmark and one of the mentors, said she can tell the children are getting instruction about writing in school, but she thinks the mentoring program may give them an extra boost.

"When I was their age, I wanted to be a writer," Riggin said, "and I still have the essay where I wrote that I wanted to be a writer. My teacher wrote on it, 'You're off to a good start. Now it just takes hard work.' I still remember that. I hung on to that essay.

"I think we could do something here that could change the course of somebody's life," Riggin continued. "You just never know."


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