First Lady Michelle Obama Honors The Telling Room

Nonprofit presented with nation's highest honor for creative youth development programs

Nov 17, 2015, 09:58 ET from The Telling Room

WASHINGTON, Nov. 17, 2015 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Ibrahim Shkara, 19, of Portland, Maine received the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program award from First Lady Michelle Obama on behalf of The Telling Room. The nonprofit writing center was honored for promoting writing and life skills to migrant teens by engaging them in their creative youth development program, Young Writers & Leaders.

"Accepting this award from the First Lady on behalf of The Telling Room is an experience that I'll never forget," says Shkara. "It shows me that people recognize and value the power of programs that can change the lives of children."

When he was eight-years-old, Shkara and his family fled a war-ravaged Baghdad, and moved to Cairo.  He was uprooted again in 2012 when his family moved to Portland, Maine. There, he joined The Telling Room, a nonprofit writing center dedicated to the idea that children and young adults are natural storytellers.

Focused on young writers ages 6 to 18, the organization seeks to build confidence, strengthen literacy skills, and showcase the work of children. The program has achieved astounding success, with 100% of senior participants attending college. Since its founding in 2004, The Telling Room has engaged more than 12,000 youths in various programs.

Young Writers & Leaders has served teens from around the world, including Africa, Asia, Central America, and Russia. They are bonded by heroic stories of personal and family survival that becomes part of their writing.   

Among Young Writers & Leaders' alums is Richard Akera, a Ugandan refugee who wrote a story, "I Started to Explain." The story recounts how the then 13-year-old stoned a dog to death after it attacked his 5-year old brother, and how he was punished by his mother for not protecting his brother. It describes Akera's sadness for his brother and for his family's poverty.

Young Writers & Leaders is supported by prominent writers who volunteer their time, including Richard Russo, Ann Beattie, and Richard Blanco. Many of them created works for the Telling Room's anthologies to accompany the students' work. Russo's companion piece recast Akera's story as a movie scene.

"His piece really spoke to me," said Russo, "I got to know Akera and had this wild notion of commenting on the piece in screenplay form. These kids have such astonishing stories to tell, stories that nobody seemed to care about."

The latest stories from the Telling Room are available in their 2015 anthology, A Season for Building Houses, released today (

Young Writers & Leaders receives support from donors including Beim Foundation; Edward H. Daveis Benevolent Fund of the Maine Community Foundation; Hudson Foundation; Key Bank; Leonard C. & Mildred F. Ferguson Foundation; Maine Arts Commission; Maine Community Foundation; Charlie Miller, Moser Family Foundation; National Endowment for the Arts; Stephen & Tabitha King Foundation; United Way of Greater Portland; and Unum.

Contact: Andrew Griswold
mobile: (207) 838-5570


SOURCE The Telling Room