On a cloudy summer afternoon, three young teenagers sat locked in the back of Shelter Island Police Officer Chris Drake’s police cruiser. Curious bystanders may have noticed there were no metallic handcuffs, but the youngsters had their hands full with pens and notebooks.
They were doing research, not time, as part of the Rena’s Promise Creative Writing Camp held at Camp Quinipet.
Thirteen students ranging in age from 13-18 recently completed the course. Founded by authors Heather MacAdam and Simon Worrall the writing camp was created to honor Rena Kornreich Gelissen, a Holocaust survivor with whom MacAdam penned the bestselling book, “Rena’s Promise.” The Jesse Lee House at the camp accommodated the 13 students, along with four teachers and three college-aged counselors.
The writing camp offered four “majors” for the week: fiction, journalism, poetry and screenwriting.
Classes met each morning, and were often held around outdoor picnic benches. Mr. Worrall, a veteran reporter and author of, among other books, “The Poet and the Murderer,” taught the journalism course.
His class would leave Quinipet after lunch for various excursions. They interviewed tourists in Greenport, visited Worrall’s literary agent in Southampton, and, spent that afternoon with Officer Drake.
Worrall first had his students ride along with a cop three years ago. He remembers the officer mentioning, “Don’t get too excited. This is the Shelter Island Police, not Miami Vice.”
Dynahlee Padilla, a high-school senior from New York City, was one of the three writers who travelled with Officer Drake. In a story she wrote later that night, Dynahlee acknowledged the peculiarity of the circumstance: “Strangers who peer in with judgmental eyes will think I am a criminal. They will not know that I’m actually an aspiring journalist in a town that’s foreign to me.”
Fortunately for Officer Drake (though perhaps less so for the aspiring journalists), the ride was devoid of any drama. The cruiser stopped at the North Ferry, where the officer greeted three young children. The group continued to patrol the Island before receiving a tour of Town Hall.
Dynahlee volunteers at a police station in New York City, affording her a unique perspective on Shelter Island’s justice system. “The tour of the police office was quite different than the precinct I work at in the city,” she said.
Dynahlee was also struck by the rapport between Officer Drake and the local people, particularly the children. As Officer Drake noted, “They ask a lot of someone to live and work in the same community, because you’re never really off duty.”
Dynahlee said, “I enjoyed seeing how close-knit the entire community was with this cop. I kind of wish NYC had a better relationship with their cops.”
Rena’s Promise began Sunday, June 20, and concluded this past Saturday morning. The camp attracts students by emailing high schools throughout the tri-state area. Participants, described by Mr. Worrall as, “fantastically inspired and passionate kids,” must complete a thorough application and provide a writing sample. With many students competing for a limited number of slots —and for some, scholarships — the competition is fierce; only half of all applicants are admitted to the camp.
Enrollees travel to Shelter Island from all over. This year, one budding writer child came from Baltimore. In past summers students have travelled from as far afield as California, England and South Africa. The scenery provided by the Island, and Quinipet in particular, plays an integral role in each student’s development. “The fact that they are on an island,” said Worrall, “focuses them. Shelter Island has the most beautiful surroundings.” The kids also had plenty of opportunities to swim and kayak — just two of many firsts for some participants.
After morning classes and afternoon trips throughout the East End, students returned to Quinipet each night. Daily writing assignments often totaled 500 words, and when combined with endeavors completed during class time, Worrall estimated each child wrote about 1,000 words per day.
“They simply wrote non-stop, they were writing machines,” he added. A critical part of each student’s growth came through peer critique. Every composition was scoured by at least two others, with participants learned to both give and receive constructive criticism.
The capstone of the week was a reading held at Canio’s Bookstore in Sag Harbor. Each student read one piece to a sizeable crowd, which included parents, teachers and local patrons. “These young people made huge strides during the week, finding their own personal voice,” Mr. Worrall said, “The environment was incredibly supportive.”
In order to provide equal opportunities to all children, scholarship funds are needed. If you wish to donate, please contact Simon Worrall at [email protected].com or visit renaspromise.com.