At-risk tweens and teens have a new champion in e. E. Charlton-Trujillo—young adult author, award-winning filmmaker, and now, since the launch of her nonprofit Never Counted Out, a pioneer in empowering youth through the arts. What began as a DIY road trip to talk to these kids following the publication of her novel Fat Angie (Candlewick, 2013) unexpectedly grew to encompass and inspire so much more, and what she discovered was “mind-blowing,” the author tells School Library Journal.
Her winding journey over the past few months started with a modest idea—“And I really didn’t know what I was getting into,” she jokes. After her novel’s debut, Charlton-Trujillo was searching for her next project when she ran into a colleague, a history teacher in a small town in Texas, just before the summer. The colleague shared with her some writing by one of her eighth-grade students, and noted that the boy was troubled and withdrawn and spoke very little. The author, impressed by the quality of his writing, agreed to meet with him—and, to her delight, they developed a rapport.
“We start talking about his story,” Charlton-Trujillo says. “And then as we engage, not only does this kid talk, he smiles.” That planted the seed, she says. “I thought to myself, ‘what if I call it a book tour and I travel across America?’” After appealing for help to her more than 4,000 Facebook followers—a “micro-Kickstarter,” she calls it—the author packed her filmmaking equipment, put the contents of her Cincinnati apartment in storage, and was on the road about a month later, braving her phobias of cars and traffic, severe weather, heights, air travel, and the unknown to visit as many kids as possible.
She used social media and contacts around the country, especially librarians and other educators, to find at-risk teen groups and their program coordinators. She met up with other authors—like Ellen Hopkins, Kathryn Erskine, and A.S. King—to interview them on film, and for crash space. “It was very grassroots, right from the bottom up,” she says.
Librarians, she adds, were “the saviors of this tour. They were the ones that got me connected.”
And as she got to meet more and more kids around the country and learn their stories, her idea grew—could she do something bigger to help them?
“Meeting with these kids is so life-affirming and life-changing, because these are the kids that are counted out,” she says. “And their vernacular, their imagination, their comprehension—it is off the hook. It was the gamut of young people—we’re talking incarcerated teens, teen mothers trying to get to college, LGBTQ kids. It’s not just a kid with his pants down to his knees in the inner city. That is not the definition. Once you start to dismantle it and really look at it, you see how broad ‘at-risk’ really is.”
To win over the toughest kids (which ultimately did include gang members and juvenile offenders in some locations), Charlton-Trujillo shared details about her own troubled childhood—growing up in a small town with a violent, drug-addicted mother—and incorporated lots of humor and slang to keep the balance lighthearted, she explains. “If I offer the truth to them about my life experience, they let me see what they need to hear, and it also allows me to tap into their creativity, which is the whole reason that I’m there. Because I believe that their creativity is going to empower them.”
At some visits she would discuss her books, while other visits focused on hot topics like changing the conversation about bullying, or working on the kids’ own writing. Getting the kids to talk—and write—about their lives, and being there to encourage them in those endeavors were some of the most exciting moments of the tour, she says. “I’m out there with these kids, and I’m saying one simple thing: ‘I believe in you.’ And to say it and mean it, the world changes for them. It just changes.”
What it comes down to, she says, is “the power of what can happen when you show up in a way that’s authentic.” In fact, the author says, “Showing up has currency. That’s what Never Counted Out is about. It’s about showing up, and it’s about using art to empower these kids and hopefully slow down the fists and the guns and the knives and suicides. I don’t want to wait for it to be better. I want it to be better now. How can we make it better now, in this moment?”
Charlton-Trujillo still stays in touch with as many kids as she can from the tour and reads the writing that they send her, and she says she hopes to involve them in the new nonprofit organization as well as her upcoming efforts to assemble the footage she captured into a documentary film. Especially on the second leg of her tour, which took place in September and October, students filled in as her crew, serving as director, cinematographer, and sound person during her visits and learning “filmmaking 101” in the process, she says. She’s aiming for a release date by early summer 2014, she says, although her primarily focus in the coming months will be on developing her organization.
She envisions Never Counted Out as a multi-pronged platform. First and foremost, she says, “It’s about putting the at-risk youth in reach of professionals—writers, photographers, painters, filmmakers. It’s about taking creativity to the youth where they live.” The site will also include an online hub for young people to feature their writing, video, and other creative projects, perhaps with the support of professional editors who could volunteer their time to provide feedback.
The author also wants to create an online moderated forum that’s separate from sites like Facebook, where teens can discuss their creative projects and more. “The idea is to get away from the places where the kids are being bullied and create a safe space,” she says.
After a soft launch on November 27, the author and her team have been continuously adding content and fine-tuning the site—and seeking prominent support. For example, young adult author A.S. King has signed on “to help get the movement off the ground,” Charlton-Trujillo says, noting that others have stepped up to donate books to distribute to at-risk youth, and are volunteering their time.
“To extract the spirit of a tour into something of achievable, larger activism is a challenge,” she tells SLJ. “But I’ve seen the results and I believe that programs and libraries across America are yearning for creative mentors to connect with the young people in their community.”
She adds, “I came from a small town, not far from where I met that first kid. The likelihood of me getting out of that town in a way that you can dream about is very low, and I know what that’s like to not have creative mentors. And after meeting that young man, I said: ‘this is my way to pay it forward.’”