By the time they arrived in the room downstairs, their worlds were already fractured.
Some had been abused, some had been neglected. All were young girls who had landed at Brookwood, gratefully or not, because they had nowhere else to go.
There, in a basement as out of place as they were, the girls gathered to write. Their participation fluctuated, and their moods did too, but their words felt unmistakably true.
Turns out, those broken lives were awash in poetry.
There's a girl in the mirror.
I wonder who she is.
Sometimes I think I know her,
sometimes I wish I did.
There's a story in her eyes, lullabies and goodbyes,
and when she's looking back
at me, I can tell she's
Details and accommodations have evolved during Brookwood's 80-plus years in St. Petersburg, but the basic goal has remained the same: Providing a sense of hope and safe harbor for girls who have often had neither.
Some girls are placed at the home by the Florida Department of Children and Families, some are sent by their parents after trouble at home, and some just show up on their own.
Depending on the circumstances, they can be gone in a month or could remain at Brookwood until they are old enough to create lives on their own.
"I continue to be surprised, shocked, amazed at the resilience of these girls,'' said Brookwood executive director Pam Mesmer. "The things they go through and then come out at the other end of the tunnel with heads held high is amazing to me.''
Jeanne Chase was at a Pass-a-Grille Women's Club meeting when she first heard of the mission at Brookwood. After a lifelong love affair with the written word, Chase volunteered to start a weekly poetry class at Brookwood that is now nearly a decade old.
"They have had things going on in their lives that most people will never know or understand,'' Chase said. "I think they feel like poetry gives them a voice. A chance to express themselves and maybe take some control of their lives.''
Poetry, a recent Brookwood resident explained, was an escape. A way to organize her thoughts and let her feelings out in a nonthreatening way. (Because of family privacy issues, Brookwood would not allow girls to be identified.)
Thoughts that might have been difficult for her to reveal in counseling or therapy sessions were more easily expressed on a page. And hearing the fear, rage and hope of other poems being read aloud helped her, and others, understand they were not alone.
Not the girls abandoned by parents. Not the ones abused by boys. Not the ones unloved by anyone who shared their name, and not the victims of childhood rape.
I have never been sky diving.
I haven't been to Paris
or gone to Canada,
or been with my mom
in years, but … .
I would like to.
She showed up one night expecting to talk about her craft, answer a few questions and walk away knowing she had done her kindness for the day.
That was eight months ago. Or was it nine? Whatever the timeline, Lisa Unger is still immersed in Brookwood's poetry movement, and has no intention of leaving now.
A New York Times bestselling novelist and longtime Pinellas County resident, Unger speaks regularly at writing workshops and conferences as well as book signings, but this was different. This was not about being published or finding an agent. These girls were interested in the craft, the devotion, the freedom of writing.
"I didn't expect to be so inspired by them, but I immediately felt how important it was to the girls, and that's how it became important to me," Unger said. "They had this raw emotion, this total honesty. It's a certain kind of courage that they bring to the page.''
For years, Chase had raised money to put together a book of poems every Mother's Day for the girls to have as keepsakes. With Unger's help as editor, the project grew more ambitious this year.
The Anthology was published last month, and for the first time the poems of Brookwood are available for purchase. Is the poetry technically sound? Is it artistically appealing? I suppose those are questions best left for academics and critics.
The point is the poems of Brookwood were never written for the pleasure or approval of others. Their beauty, their effectiveness, their legacy is in the feelings they captured.
"To me, the definition of true art is if it makes you feel something. If it evokes an emotion,'' Unger said. "And some of these poems pack a wallop. It feels like they're cracking open a window to their souls.''
I always cry.
Many people ask why.
They ask, "Are you alright?''
I say I'm just fine.
My days get shortened for telling these lies.
Many people say they don't cry.
If only they could feel what I feel inside.