by Betsy Franco
November 24, 2012

Betsy Franco with Art of Yoga Project teacher Jana Kilgore

I had the privilege of working with seventeen girls in Pine Four at the Youth Services Center in San Mateo–thanks to The Art of Yoga Project and the Palo Alto Children’s Theatre.  I taught creative writing to the girls for a total of five amazing weeks.  Each session, one by one, they were let out of their rooms, which surrounded the lobby we met in.  As soon as I saw the first two girls on the first day, I knew I was meant to be there.

Mats were laid out in a circle, like the rays of the sun, and we did a series of yoga poses to center ourselves and access our creativity.  Then the writing began.  The poetry and stories the girls wrote were honest, heartfelt, and powerful…and healing for all of us.

From the start they were serious about their writing, about telling their truth, and about their handwriting.  They were even serious about the color of the paper they chose to write on.  Everything mattered.

Since I have compiled four anthologies of teen writing published by Candlewick Press, I read a few poems from those books as a jumping off place each week.


Journal CoverThe first week, I read a poem from my anthology, You Hear Me? poems and writing by teenage boys.  It was by a boy from Detroit who listed what he wanted in his life.  Then the girls wrote about what they wanted. One girl said she didn’t know what she wanted, was afraid what she wanted was bad for her, but she managed to write a beautiful poem.

One girl who said she was hella bored when she checked in about how she was feeling, wrote and wrote and wrote.  She said she wanted what could never happen. So another girl made up a motto for all of us that “the impossible is possible.”

A handful shared their poems in their entirety and then each poet wrote two lines from her poem on a small paper.  I collected them all, shuffled them, and read them as a collaborative poem, anonymously.

[poem by a girl in week one]

I Want

I want to be free
I want to leave this place
I want to turn the key
I want these locked doors to open

I want to live lavishly
I want to forget
I want not only what money can buy
I want to be loved

I want control
I want my emotions to stop taking over me
I want to take my heart off my shoulder
I want to face my fears

I want to get it off my chest
I want to drown my sorrows
I want to cry out the pain
I want to win

I want to start over
I want to run and never look back
I want a new beginning
I want to turn this chapter

I want to be free


There were 8 girls.
We bonded.


The second week, I read poems from You Hear Me? and Falling Hard, 100 love poems by teens.  The girls wrote their own poems using these poetry prompts:
Just because _____, doesn’t mean _____.

I remember

One girl announced that she’d been waiting all week for the writing session.

The girls wrote about being molested, about being tired of everything and everyone in juvenile hall, about cheating on their boyfriend and their boyfriend cheating on them, about how their mind wasn’t always telling them the truth, about how “even if I can’t love themself, I can still love you.”

We all snapped after every girl who volunteered to read.  They introduced me to snapping instead of clapping.

I told them they were the wisest class I’d every taught and one girl said, “You’d be surprised what happens when you put someone in a cell.”

[poem by a girl in week two]

Just because I am the way I am doesn’t
mean I don’t have a bad past.

Just because I was molested at a young age
doesn’t mean I’m going to let my daughter go
through the same pain.

Just because I cry about it doesn’t mean
I’m going to let it bring me down.

Just because I don’t say anything
doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt.

Just because I don’t love my self ’cause
my past doesn’t mean I can’t love you.


There were 12 girls.
We got closer.

The third week, I read poems from my anthology Things I Have to Tell You, poems and writing by teenage girls.  The poetry prompts were:

I am grateful
I am

When I read the collaborative poem using two lines from each of the girls’ poems, the new girl asked,” Who wrote these?”  She was amazed at the power of the words and that they had come from the girls surrounding her and herself.

[poem by one of the girls in week 3]

I’m a box full of secrets.
I’m a star that doesn’t shine because I’m dusted with shame.
I’m all my broken thoughts waiting to be heard.
I’m always trying to run away from
myself unconsciously and consciously.
I’m everything to someone, yet nothing
to myself.
I’m a lost soul floating around
confused waiting to be found.
I’m forever killing myself with any
substance I can find because
I’m all pain inside.
I’m a robot following patterns of craziness
and thrills that temporarily make me numb.
I’m a person trapped in a mind that
controls me afraid to let me go and see
the real me.
I’m something I don’t like to feel so
I keep hiding my face, repeating my lines,
tricking my pain, mistaking happiness for
adrenaline, ignoring all my feelings, doing my


There were 10 girls.
Some had been released.
It was intense and wonderful.


The fourth week, I showed them how to draw up their energy in order to write-–by rubbing their faces and arms and filling themselves with light.  I told them they could write, no matter if I was there or not.  I gave them a message from my son, James Franco: “Find something you love to do and work hard at it.”

I read some monologues from my book, 21 Monologues for Teen Actors, and they wrote very short stories about their lives.  I explained that there are so many genres to write in.  Sometimes you can write intense feelings, sometimes uplifting memories or stories.

Writing has a “magical” power, and the girls began to inspire themselves.  That’s what we found out, along with the fact that even the impossible is possible.

There were 13 girls.
We learned more about each other.


The fifth week, each girl picked a poem and performed it beautifully and proudly in the Pine Four Poetry Slam.  We pretended they were being filmed and I taught them some performance skills.  My actor son Dave Franco sent them a message “to breathe and relax and they would perform well.”  One of the poems made the reader cry and made us all cry.  Everyone was courageous and read their very personal poems to the group.

These are the Pine Four Writers.  They are writers, and they will keep writing.

You should feel privileged that you get to read about them and that they are willing to share their poems in this blog.


Collaborative Poem: Week 1

I Want  

I want to hit reality
I want to open my eyes
I want to be free
I want for people to care.
I want to meet Betsy’s son
I want my life to change
I want a man I can make my husband.
I want respect and loyalty
I want friends that aren’t fake and won’t say my business
I want to make my parents proud.
I want to have fun, yet remain on the right track.
I want to be free from the patterns that control
my mind,
I want to learn how to deal with my pain and
my past instead of running away.
I want to live my dreams
I want to finish school
I want a steady career, a life
100,000 income a year, cars, freedom
I want things I know that
could never happen.

Collaborative Poem: Week 2

Just Because…Doesn’t Mean
I Remember

Just because I don’t get
along with my mom doesn’t
mean I don’t love her
Just because I’m locked up doesn’t
mean I’m a criminal.  Just
because I use drugs doesn’t mean I’m
a fiend.

Just because I’m here
doesn’t mean I can’t change

Just because I’m independent
doesn’t mean I don’t care about others
I remember once I saved a couple lives.

Just because I’m spending 3 months
Doesn’t mean I don’t remember

I remember when I first got this hairy
black and white thing  it was on
my bed in its pink furry bed.
Her eyes barely open already a spoiled princess
like all my mom’s girls

Just because I wave at
someone doesn’t mean I’m flirting
with them.

Just because I say you’re cute doesn’t
mean I like you.

Just because I say I’m tired doesn’t mean
I want to sleep.

Just because I smoke weed
doesn’t mean I’m retarded.

Just because of what the mind
assumes it may not be what is

Just because I don’t say anything
doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt
Just because I don’t love my self
’cause my past doesn’t mean
I can’t love you!

Collaborative Poem: Week 3

I am like…
I am grateful…

I am grateful for a loving family and beautiful
I am like a baby bird waiting for my chance to
fly away.

I love you no matter what.  You’ll always
be my little one.

I am like a child
with no worries or troubles.
Only of being stung by a bee
or falling over and scraping my knee.

I’m a star that doesn’t shine
because it’s dusted with shame.
I’m all my broken thoughts waiting
to be heard.

I am grateful for you but when you
bring me down I don’t know where to
go who to run to.  All I think about
is a world full of smoke, white powder,
pills and eyes full of red pain

I’m grateful everything happens for a reason.
I am like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly,
I can’t wait to see my full potential.

I am grateful for my parents’ undying, hardworking, crazy
I owe them the world.

I am grateful for the little things I have
because I earned them with my own two
I am grateful for still having a beating heart
at the age of sixteen.

I’m shocked but it’s a cold world.

Our group saying:

           Even the impossible is possible.


October 11, 2012

Last month The Art of Yoga Project (AYP) participated in the 2012 Juvenile Justice Expert Exchange between three Bay Area County Juvenile Justice systems and delegates from China’s Supreme People’s Court. From September 9-16, seven Chinese juvenile judges visited three jurisdictions: San Mateo, San Francisco and Santa Clara – all service areas for AYP.

Slides for the presentation were translated by StarVista's Tonia Chen

The judges were interested in the collaborative approach between probation officers, courts, attorneys, mental health and community-based organizations like The Art of Yoga Project. AYP was asked to participate in a multi-disciplinary gender-specific treatment overview in San Mateo. Sarah Barnard, Site Director for San Mateo and San Francisco, presented our gender-responsive, trauma-informed model and eight best practices for the rehabilitation of teen girls in the juvenile system.

Like our partners, we highlighted the importance of seeing the girls in the context of their difficult environments and upbringing. Sarah explained how we advocate for our girls caught in cycles of victimization and San Mateo Juvenile Judge Elizabeth Lee offered, “We make a greater effort to understand the unique circumstances and social history of each juvenile in order to find the best disposition for him or her.”

The practices presented at the conference could likely affect the way China treats it adjudicated youth. “This exchange is of great importance for juvenile justice reform in China,” said Executive Director John Kamm of the sponsoring Dui Hua Foundation, “as it very well may influence the way the country implements its new juvenile justice system in 2013.”


Art Against Exploitation

August 23, 2012

Get your mind around this: Girls in juvenile detention reaching out to girls in India who are trapped in the sex trade. Their backgrounds are similar—girls in detention have an astonishingly high incidence of sexual abuse and are often victims of sexual trafficking here in the Bay Area. They both suffer from trauma.  And they both need to feel worthy and have hope. In this instance, art is the answer.

Quilt 1

This summer, The Art of Yoga Project embarked on a very special partnership with the amazing Anchal Project.  The Anchal Project is a textiles non-profit offering employment alternatives to commercial sex workers in Ajmer and Kolkata, India.  Late last year, we met with Anchal co-founder, Devon Miller, and planned this exciting cross-cultural collaboration. Due to a generous grant from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation’s Donor Circle for the Arts Fund, we are able to complete this project in two of our detention facilities!

The quilts pictured here are the fruits of a 6-week workshop where 5 girls at our Santa Clara James Ranch facility explored places of personal power and refuge through fabric collage. In the spirit of giving, or seva, the girls donated their work to be sold to help sponsor a young commercial sex worker in Ajmer, India to become an Anchal artisan. website change monitor . In fact, one quilt was supposed to be kept for themselves and the girls chose instead to auction both quilts at an upcoming Art of Yoga event.

On August 11th, our beloved advisor and master yoga teacher, Desiree Rumbaugh, offered an inspiring and energetic yoga class to a full house at Breathe Yoga Studio in Los Gatos  as a fundraiser for the Art of Yoga. The quilts were displayed and two lucky and generous participants bought them when auctioned! When the girls at James Ranch heard the news, they were thrilled and empowered by their giving.

Quilt 2

Stay tuned for photos of quilts from our San Mateo Camp Kemp site!

Perhaps most inspiring to me were the letters, full of compassion and empathy, that the James Ranch girls wrote to the women in India. Some poignant examples:

“I pray for you, and if you have children, them also. I wish you to stay strong and don’t ever give up…It’s sad because the situation you’re in, but one day, everything will be okay, keep your hopes high.”


“…Keep in mind that you guys are worth something. In somebody’s eyes you’re all beautiful in any way. In and out.”

Yogawoman DocumentaryIt was the day before Thanksgiving at San Mateo County’s Camp Kemp Juvenile detention facility. Holidays are always an especially rough time for girls locked up away from family and friends. At The Art of Yoga Project (AYP), we not only hold yoga and art classes on holidays, we try to think of special ways to inspire the girls. We decided a movie showing would be just the thing. And not just any movie, but one which they could personally relate to and see themselves in a new, hopeful light.

The film was Yogawoman, a groundbreaking, award-winning documentary narrated by Academy Award winner, Annette Bening, and now premiering worldwide. The talented trio of producers came to Camp Kemp three years ago to include AYP’s work in the film and follow the story of one girl in particular, Sayle, as she served her time and later transitioned home and into college. We couldn’t wait to see the girls’ reactions as they recognized Camp Kemp, their probation counselors, schoolteacher and AYP instructors in the film. We knew that some would even know Sayle. And we all knew that they would relate to yoga – because girls at Camp Kemp practice yoga four days a week as a mandatory and integral part of their rehabilitation. Four days a week for an average of six months plus our aftercare program for another year can certainly create a life-long discipline for health and well-being. We looked to Yogawoman to help the girls further understand why we bring this beautiful practice to them and the way it can transform their fractured lives.

On this day, another long-time AYP teacher, Jessica Archer, and I brought bags of kettle corn and rearranged couches to set a cozy space in their otherwise austere setting. We met with facility staff for an update on the girls, carefully laid out napkins and journals. Then we quietly set our intentions for the session, knowing the usual challenges that come in this environment.

Twelve teen girls filed in, found their seats and, as is our usual practice, were acknowledged and honored by Jessica and me individually by name. Before long, every one of the girls was very engaged. They began to stir and make comments and Jessica and I, both teary, smiled at each other knowing the girls were interested and inspired:

  • Hearing about a woman with breast cancer, they expressed compassion.
  • Seeing Uganda on film, its wild animals and the beautiful women being helped by Seane Corn’s humanitarian project made the girls want to go along. “We should do a field trip there someday….” “I want to do that!” “I want to help those women, too.”  “I would hella do that.”
  • Seeing India, “I want to do yoga in India!”
  • Learning about how Patricia Walden used yoga to conquer addiction was a revelation to many “No way… Wow!”
  • Learning the history of yoga and how women reclaimed yoga in the west and made it their own “That’s hella cool.”

Quite simply, the film broadened their world. It inspired travel, service, empowerment and compassion and, as we see consistently in the yoga room, it brought out the best in them. Many of the girls made comments that showed their deepened commitment to the practice  “I can do that pose.” “I’m going to try that.” “ I want to do yoga for a very long time!” “ I want to do yoga on the outs.” “I’m going to teach my mom AND my grandma yoga.”

After the movie, we asked the girls to journal to the prompt: “Yogawoman is….”

They each shared their answers aloud.

A Yogawoman is:

  • An inspirational person
  • Stress free, balanced, full of energy
  • Someone who is physically, mentally and emotionally strong
  • Someone who can control her breath, who is strong, flexible, motivated, comes inside herself and forgets the bad and focuses on the good
  • Someone who likes to do yoga 
  • Someone in tune with her own body
  • Very inspiring and has strength
  • A strong, confident woman, comfortable in her own skin
  • Someone who takes time to know herself, physically and mentally, who is willing and doesn’t give up, picks herself up when she falls, and makes herself stronger than she is
  • Beautiful even if she is ugly
  • Someone who loves herself

Next, I asked the girls “Are you Yogawoman?”  There was a resounding “Yes!” So for our closing, each girl, one at a time, substituted “I am” for “Yogawoman” in her answer above. It was powerful:

“I am an inspirational person. I pick myself up when I fall. I am in tune with my body. I am a strong, confident woman. I am beautiful even if I have been ugly.  I am someone who loves herself…”   

Yogagirls becoming Yogawoman.




Mary Lynn, founder of The Art of Yoga ProjectWelcome!

I am Mary Lynn Fitton, the founder of AYP. I  have the great pleasure of being the  director of programs for all of our services for at-risk and exploited teen girls. We have core programming in three San Francisco Bay Area Counties and affiliates in 10 states nationally. I speak for all of us at AYP when I say that teaching the Yoga & Creative Arts Curriculum to girls in the juvenile justice system brings us much joy, gratitude and fulfillment. There are many stories to tell, and I hope you will be as inspired as I am to hear about our heroes – the girls whom we serve.  Please visit our blog often and become “A part of the Art”—of Yoga!


The Art of Yoga Project

The Art of Yoga Project focuses on early intervention to help marginalized and justice-involved girls prepare for a positive future. We are leaders in the treatment and rehabilitation of justice-involved girls by offering gender-responsive, trauma-informed, culturally-responsive, and strengths-based programming.

Our mission is to lead at-risk, exploited and incarcerated girls toward accountability to self, others, and community by providing practical tools to effect behavioral change. We send specially trained yoga teachers, art therapists, creative arts and writing educators into facilities to deliver our mindfulness-based curriculum.

The Art of Yoga Project is a 501(c)(3) non profit. Tax ID #20-2448697.