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'Voices' of the young are read

The Baltimore Sun

The latest edition of the student-produced Voices magazine contains an article on bullying and interviews with Judge Mablean Ephriam of the popular TV show Divorce Court, and rap artists such as Chris Brown, Big Daddy Kane and Doug E. Fresh.

Impressive catches for a group of writers whose ages are almost all in the single digits. Most of Voices' contributors attend a before- and after-school program based at Wellwood International, an elementary school in Pikesville.

"The goal is to get children's voices heard," said Darlene Walker, the Baltimore County parent who started the publication as a newsletter nearly 10 years ago.

About 50 students contribute to Voices, Walker said. The writers include children at elementary schools in Pennsylvania, Virginia and New York.

A teacher from Liberia contacted Walker recently to ask whether her students could start contributing articles. The answer was yes, of course, Walker said.

Walker, whose professional background is in psychology and counseling, said she created Voices to give her oldest daughter, then a student at Bedford Elementary School, and her daughter's classmates something productive to do after school. She said she also wanted to give them an outlet for their thoughts and ideas.

"There were so many different types of publications, but nothing where children did all the writing and that was top-notch," she said.

Until recently, the program's writers were elementary school children. But as some participants have moved on to middle school, Walker has allowed them to continue writing.

Walker's daughter, Jabria Nasir, 14, a ninth-grader at Pikesville High School, is developing Teen Voices as a companion publication, in part to respond to the interest among older students.

With increasing interest from other states, Walker recently hired an assistant, Erika Leak, to take over the daily sessions at Wellwood. Using a journalism-based curriculum, Leak works with the students by brainstorming story ideas, trying out interview questions and honing their writing skills.

Voices, which is published once each academic year, has evolved into a glossy, full-color 8 1/2 -by-11-inch magazine that is carried at the Barnes & Noble bookstore in Pikesville. Walker said she is working toward publishing twice each school year.

The magazine is Walker's independent endeavor, but the Baltimore County school system allows her to use classroom space and distributes copies of the magazine to county schools.

Walker enlists a local graphics artist to help design the publication. A Michigan company prints the magazine, but Walker said she would like to find a local printer.

Printing isn't cheap, but Walker said she is committed to producing a high-quality magazine to showcase the children's work.

"The kids deserve something like this," said Walker, who frequently pays expenses herself.

Walker charges tuition - ranging from $320 a month to attend before and after school Monday through Friday, to $250 a month to attend up to three days a week. Parents are expected to help with fundraising and transporting their children to off-site interviews.

Walker said that when friends tried to convince her that producing a full-color magazine was too costly and unnecessary, she politely ignored them.

In addition to interviews with celebrities and original poetry, the magazine's contributors write about such subjects as diabetes, childhood obesity and bullying.

In a recent edition, a two-page spread titled "Our Voice" includes responses to the question "How do you define a hero?" and student-generated definitions of the word "leadership." In another column, students share their thoughts on "doing something I never did before."

In an adjacent two-page feature titled "Our World," the students write about issues such as war, school lockdowns and divorce.

"When I think of the war, I think of my Godmother because she died and that makes me think of guns," wrote Kayla Schaffer, 9, who is in fourth grade at Wellwood International. "I also feel sad and feel like crying. I feel like I need to just pray to God that people in the war will be okay and no one in the war will ever die. If they do die, I pray and say, 'Lord, please let them go to heaven if they were good.'"

Children have much to say, and people need to listen, Walker and other parents involved in the program said after a recent session.

Tonee Strickland, whose daughter, Abriana, is in fourth grade at Wellwood International, said her daughter has never been shy but that writing for Voices has given the 9-year-old more confidence.

"When you take a minute to listen to what they say, you'd be surprised at how much they are taking in," Tonee Strickland said. "This helps them realize they do have a say. It helps them voice their opinions."



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