Poetry Daily and Juvenile Detention Center Students Dream Big

January 1, 2024

“Dream Big” cover art from 2023 JDC chapbook

We are thrilled to announce the third year of Poetry Alive!, a program that seeks to uplift and empower students at the Fairfax Juvenile Detention Center (JDC) in their creative writing through interactive classes focused on contemporary poetry. Made possible through funding by ArtsFairfax, the 2024 program will allow JDC student poets to collaborate with visiting writers and three teaching fellows from George Mason University’s MFA in Creative Writing program, Nicholas Ritter, Katey Funderburgh, and Chelsea Lebron. 

Poetry Alive! is conducted at the JDC as part of the center’s BETA program, a year-long therapeutic program for male residents aged 14-17. Last year’s program ran throughout the spring semester, with classes every other week, and culminated in the creation of a hand-made poetry chapbook containing the work of the JDC poets. The students titled the chapbook “Dream Big,” a title that speaks so much to the spirit of the program, and created the cover art. 

As part of their course work, students talked over video conference with National Book Award finalist José Olivarez about the poems in his book Citizen Illegal, which the students studied throughout the semester.

After working with the students, Olivarez contributed the chapbook’s forward, where he praises the power and importance of their voices: “The poems in this collection are alive—each of the poems are beating hearts written by poets with their fingers on the pulse of their lives and their future. There is no greater compliment that I can give poets: the poetry in this collection[…] demands to be respected, listened to, and yes, cared for.” 

Nick Ritter taught in the 2023 program as a teaching fellow and will continue teaching in the 2024 program: “At heart, the poetry lessons we offered the students were meant to create a space for them to feel safe expressing themselves in different ways. Having an opportunity to do this kind of teaching is part of what drew me to graduate school.”


Three individuals sit side by side along a table building chapbooks by hand.
PD Managing Editor Martin Mitchell and Poetry Alive! Teaching Fellows Victoria Mendoza and Nick Ritter making chapbooks for the JDC students in 2023. Photo by Evan Cantwell/OUB

JDC Librarian Jessica Finley attributes the success of the poetry program to the presence of the teaching fellows: “​​The Mason graduate students’ presence in the classroom seems to eliminate much of the students’ discomfort by making the content more accessible and by seeing adults struggle alongside them to read, write, and understand poetry.”

 “The impacts of the program continue to show ripples and bear fruit in winding and magical ways,” says Finley about last year’s program:  “One student requested more books of poetry, other residents took to writing poetry in their free time, and the students built a sense of pride as individuals, as well as a class. They cultivated a dynamic new form of expression and communication that they utilized with their peers and staff alike.”

Poetry Alive! Introducing Contemporary Poets to Students at the Fairfax Juvenile Detention Center and the expansion of the What Sparks Poetry essay series are part of Poetry Daily’s new mission in making the brightest thinking and writing in poetry accessible to everyone through education, both in Poetry Daily‘s local, physical community, and to its 570,000 readers across the world.


The Poetry Alive! 2024 Teaching Fellows from left to right: Katey Funderburgh, Nick Ritter, and Chelsea Lebron. Photo by Taylor Franson Thiel @franson_photography_

Katey Funderburgh is a Poetry MFA student at George Mason University. Hailing from Colorado, Katey graduated from Regis University with a BA in English and Peace & Justice studies. Her year as an AmeriCorps educator in rural Montana fostered her commitment to the intersections between education, community, and literature. When Katey isn’t toiling over poems about nature, horses, and childhood, she can be found baking for her friends or laying in the sun with her cat, Thistle.

Nicholas Ritter (he/him) is a poet and Graduate Teaching Assistant in the MFA program at George Mason University. He is also the Social Media Editor for Phoebe Journal. He is originally from the woods in Brandywine, Maryland, and now resides in NOVA. His poems can be found in The Shore Poetry, Fauxmoir, and Ballast.

Chelsea Lebron is a Jersey-born writer and MFA student at George Mason University. She is the recipient of a 2021 Robert Raymond Scholarship, a 2023 Provost Summer Research Grant, a 2023 Third Year Fellowship, and a 2022 Cheuse Center MFA Travel Fellowship where she visited various locations in South America to research cultural ghost stories. Chelsea is the coordinator of the Incarcerated Writers Project with Phoebe Journal and has worked on events and community programs with The Poetry Society of New York and PEN America. Her writing takes an interest in Latino identity, queerness, and all things spooky.


ArtsFairfax is the local Fairfax County government arts funding body in Poetry Daily’s home of Fairfax County, Virginia. To fund our operations as an independent nonprofit, Poetry Daily relies on individual donors and generous funders like ArtsFairfax, who have also provided us a 2023 general operating support grant.


This program is made possible in part by a grant from ArtsFairfax.