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Thinking Outside the (Bat) Box

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The executive director of Austin Bat Cave shares how kids and young adults can find their voice.

By Nick Barancyk, Photo courtesy of Jaden Davis

Most writers will tell you starting is the hardest part. It can leave you feeling tense or edgy, and for young writers, these feelings can be compounded and magnified, creating negative-feedback loops that make it all the more difficult to begin. At Austin Bat Cave, more than 250 volunteers band together to help students fill in those blank spaces, both on the page and in their own lives.

Spearheading the nonprofit is Austin’s own Sasha Marie Vliet. For Vliet, a writer herself, the job has allowed her to combine everything she has worked on and studied throughout the years. With Austin Bat Cave in its 10th year of programming, Vliet explains the role the written word plays in a child’s life.

Austin Woman: What do you feel is Austin Bat Cave’s role in these children’s lives?

Sasha Marie Vliet: We’re not social workers but…in addition to helping kids find their voices through word, we’re also providing one-on-one connection between a kid and an adult, and a lot of the kids we serve don’t have that one adult that’s willing to spend the time and sit down with them and go through the motions. And that’s not to say there aren’t parents busting their [butts]to try to make these kids’ lives work…but a lot of these kids don’t have that one-on-one exchange. So, that’s, to me, some more of the long-term stuff we do.

AW: How does your programming encourage self-expression?

SMV: In every single program we run, our mantra has to be, “How do we show and provide for these kids a safe place?” That can be a physical thing but it’s definitely an emotional one.

AW: Writing can be a very personal experience and sometimes hard to share with others. What would you say to those kids nervous about sharing their words?

SMV: It’s OK to take the risk, and what you do with the words on the page once you put them there is totally up to you. Maybe you don’t want to be published but your first step is to get them down. It really is the most courageous thing a person can do, I think, to be willing to have the thought and make it permanent through word. I think it’s a risk worth taking, and once it’s done, each person will have a different outcome. You don’t have to show anyone your words ever but it’s good to get them down.

AW: Having studied the youth voice and how it shapes culture, what is your perspective on the youth voice today?

SMV: It’s really powerful and inspiring now to see what the youth voice is becoming. … I’ve never really been able to live through a youth push like the one we’re seeing now. So, that’s been fun and encouraging and sad and overwhelming and beautiful. It’s pretty disheartening what has helped create that new wave in youth power but it’s nice to see it come together, regardless of why.

AW: Where do you find your volunteers?

SMV: A lot of people find us and then, obviously, word-of-mouth and friends of friends. … We just love to keep as many in our volunteer pool as possible, but when people cycle out, it seems like it happens that new people cycle in. … The writing community in Austin is broad but tight. I think a lot of people come from within that community.

Austin Bat Cave is gearing up for the release of its 10th book of collected students’ stories and taking sign-ups for its widely popular summer camps. To get involved with Austin Bat Cave, check out the volunteer form on the website (austinbatcave.org) or email Sasha Marie Vliet at sasha@austinbatcave.org.

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