Nonprofit Austin Bat Cave teaches free writing classes for kids

Katie Walsh

Children’s poems about cake, life as a foster child and alternate universes where chokers harness energy from the sun make up the regular anthology published by local nonprofit Austin Bat Cave.

Formed in 2007, Austin Bat Cave is a nonprofit dedicated to improving the writing skills of kids ages 6 to 18 through free volunteer-led programs at underprivileged schools.

Executive director Katie Haab said all Austin Bat Cave programs — from weekly after-school creative writing classes to weeklong summer camps dedicated to apocalyptic fiction — are free and she can’t imagine the program running any other way.

“If even one kid gets discouraged from telling their story and opening up their lives because they have to bring a check with them, I think it would be a failure on our part,” Haab said.

When schools or organizations in Austin feel the need for a writing program but don’t have the personnel to make it happen, they ask Austin Bat Cave for help. From there, program director Syed Ali Haider assigns volunteers to the program who develop curriculum according to the desires expressed by the school or organization in need.

Each of this semester’s 18 programs have a different focus but all work toward creating an end product, such as a poem, essay or zine, for the anthology, a collection of work from every student across all programs, making all Austin Bat Cave students published writers.

“We get to see the smallest people have the largest voices,” Haab said. “And we get to help bring those out.”

Haab said she remembers a past student, a 15-year-old foster child who read her essay about her time in the foster care system aloud to an audience of 150 parents and teachers.

“Her writing was hard to hear because your heart breaks for her and all the things she’s had to go through,” Haab said. “Yet, she is standing very straight, making great eye contact, reading her pieces and everyone in the room is weeping. To see her strength and her happiness in her creation — that is something amazing that gets to happen to us.”

UT alumna Claudia Chidester serves as the President of the Board of Directors for Austin Bat Cave. She said the organization, unlike typical classes in school, gently guides students through positive feedback toward creating a piece of work.

“Our tagline is we trick kids into liking to write,” Chidester said. “Whether it’s apocalyptic fiction or slam poetry, it’s whatever they want to write about. We kind of guide them along and show them how they can peel the onion and go deeper.”

Last week, Haider sat in on a creative writing class for middle school students at Austin Achieve Public School. During the class, Haider said a female student filled her worksheet with the story of another universe — a world where she was a product of a scientific experiment, allowing her to harness energy from the sun using her choker necklace.

“To me, that is an example of a kid who has all this stuff brewing in her head, and all she needed was this one worksheet that [the volunteers] brought in and a little bit of encouragement, and now it is no longer just in her head,” Haider said.

Volunteers Laura Campbell and Allison Myers teach the semester-long after-school course at Austin Achieve. Campbell said one of her favorite parts of teaching with Austin Bat Cave was watching students start to support one another’s work.

“The writing workshop is a really specific environment and little culture where students support each other in a unique fashion,” Campbell said. “I think that moment, when [one of our students] is owning that world she created, and getting admiration from her peers is really important.”