e.E. Charlton-Trujillo is a writer, filmmaker and hero in a hoodie who’s traveled the country to help at-risk youth. After the release of her novel “Fat Angie,” which deals with a number of issues affecting young people, she met a young man who changed her life, and she decided she needed to help anyone who felt like an outcast or misfit.
+ Watch the book trailer for “Fat Angie.”
This led e.E. to her At-Risk Youth tour, and next year she’ll be releasing a documentary about her experience. Next year will also see the launch of her nonprofit, Never Counted Out. I spoke with e.E. to learn more about the tour, “Fat Angie” and how to deal with life’s toughest issues.
ACT: After your book, “Fat Angie,” came out, you started the At-Risk Youth tour to help “kids that others might already have given up on.” Why did you decide to do this?
E.E.: I was in a tiny Texas town visiting an educator in early May. She shared this writing sample from a young man who had been depressed and disengaged. She asked if I would meet him. I was told he wouldn’t talk to me or look at me, and that was just his way. We sat down, and I just kept talking. I said, “Just tell your story. Your truth.” Before I knew it, not only was the kid talking to me, but he was looking at me, and he smiled. This kid, who I was told had shut down, was giving me his trust. When he left, he was joking and shaking my hand.
Meeting him, I thought, What if I did a different kind of book tour? What if the focus was on the kids “Fat Angie” was written for? So I gave up my loft, put my small production company on hiatus, rented a Ford Focus and drove over 7,500 miles. From Cincinnati across America, I workshopped with at-risk youth, at no cost to the programs. It was important to me to talk about how the kids and I could make things better now. The commentary I get is, “Nothing makes it better.” So the point of the workshop is to empower them now, in that moment, to have their voice and have access to creativity, so they can feel that something is changing and someone is listening.
ACT: Can you share some experiences from the tour with us?
E.E.: Absolutely. When you tell people in Chico, California, “Oh, by the way, I’m going to Fair View High School to do a workshop,” they’d say, “Oh, I’m really sorry.” The idea is that this particular continuing education program is considered to be the outcasts or the “Island of Misfit Kids.” The criminals, the gang members, the girls who got pregnant.
So there were 40 kids in my first workshop, and what the town thinks about these kids doesn’t begin to see their potential and beauty. These kids have a college-level vocabulary, and their ideas are rich. Sure, there’s a lot of pain in them, and they don’t easily trust. But I had every single one of them engaged and writing by the time I was done. Kids who don’t try tried. When students left, they told their teachers, “I want to go back.” They would talk to me afterward and say, “My friend here had an assault. Can you recommend a book for her? She’s ashamed to ask.” So I would find a book.
Kids at Fair View or the Reach Program in Red Bluff, California, or the Care Center in Holyoke, Massachusetts, have such tenacity, humor and strength. I’ve said to them, “I’ve been counted out more times than I’ve been counted in. I know people have done that to you. You’re going to be counted in.” We do it through writing, imagery and talk of real life. I would say, “I’m here because I believe in you. No one is paying me to be here. I’m here because I don’t want any more body bags.” The kids who are supposed to be “nothing” have the most “something” I’ve ever seen in my life.
ACT: What did you learn from the tour that you didn’t know before?
E.E.: I’ve learned that I can take some of the darkest moments of my life and turn them into strengths. I tell the kids about losing my best friend in a car accident. How I couldn’t deal with life and became homeless. I don’t like talking about the scars in my life, but these scars have become strengths because to these kids, it shows them I’m a warrior. To them, I’m a “hero in a hoodie.” They’ve taught me how to be okay with who I am.
ACT: What’s this we hear about a feature documentary?
E.E.: [laughs] During the tour, we filmed a documentary that just went into post-production. It’s a combination of my personal journey, the impact on the young people, teachers and program directors, and interviews with some of the finest writers for young people in America. We anticipate a release date of May 2014, and it’s called “At-Risk Summer.”
ACT: What do you have going with the org Never Counted Out? How can people get involved?
E.E.: We’re building a nonprofit to continue the impact I’ve made. The idea is to bridge the gap between professional artists and at-risk youth. Let’s say, for instance, you work at MTV. You’re a brilliant writer, and you say: “Wow, I want to do what you do, but I don’t want to get in my car and drive 7,500 miles.” Not a problem. Fill out a form, and we’ll match you with an at-risk program in your community. All I ask you is for one hour a year. If you spend one hour working with a group of at risk kids, it will change their lives forever.
The second tier is an online magazine that will feature the writing and art of kids who are part of this initiative. The third part, which is in the five-year plan, is the idea of having an online forum where you can communicate without bullying or hate. For more information on our creative revolution, head over to our website.
ACT: “Fat Angie” deals with a lot of issues: bullying, suicide, fat-shaming, family problems, self-esteem issues, bigotry toward LGBTQ people and self-harm. For young people dealing with any of these issues, where can they go for help?
And part of that support is reading any of these books:
“I Am J,” by Cris Beam, “Ask The Passengers,” by A.S. King, “Yaqui Delgado Wants To Kick Your Ass,” by Meg Medina, “We Were Here,” by Matt de la Peña, “Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock,” by Matthew Quick, “Eleanor & Park,” by Rainbow Rowell, “Aristotle and Dante Discover The Secrets of the Universe,” by Benjamin Alire Saenz, “Mousetraps,” by Pat Schmatz, “It’s Kinda Of A Funny Story,” by Ned Vizzini, and “Quad,” by C.G. Watson
ACT: What words of hope or advice do you have?
E.E.: I tell young people not to surrender to their issues. As someone who grew up in an abusive home and who self-harmed, I get the darkness. I get the quit factor. But here I am. Alive and creating change by putting words on a page. You’re not alone. You’re never alone. Use creativity to change what world you’re in at this moment. It’s not a forever fix, but it’s a beginning, and that’s what matters.
ACT: If someone sees a friend or relative going through these issues, how can they help?
E.E.: When you have a real conversation with someone where you sit down and really listen, that’s the first step. If your friend can’t reach the next step on their own, go to the websites in this article. Say, “Let’s figure this out.” I meet with kids that are bullied, and I say, “Would you go to your teacher or a parent or your friends?” You’d be surprised by the large number of kids who say, “No!” If you don’t want to call a hotline, go to your best friend. If you can’t go to your parent, go to your friend’s parent.
ACT: You seem full of great insights. We want to know: What’s the best advice someone ever gave you?
E.E.: Linda Sanders is an author who died of cancer a few years ago, and the book is dedicated to her. She was the one person who believed so adamantly in “Fat Angie.” She said to me, “This book is going to change young people’s lives. You’re here to do something great and show up for it.”
ACT: What are some of your projects happening in 2014?
E.E.: We’re launching Never Counted Out, the feature documentary, a basketball reality television show and I’m completing my next novel. And there’s discussion of “Fat Angie” the feature film, so 2014’s a big year, and I’m ready for it. These kids on the tour changed my life. I went out trying to save the world or something, and in the end they saved me.
All photos from e.E. Charlton-Trujillo.
Never Counted Out
Check out Never Counted Out and get involved! It's an org dedicated to empowering at-risk youth through writing and additional arts.
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