Deb Gordon-Gurfinkel addresses a dozen children, ages six to eight, in the community center at Carrot Way, a low-income housing complex off Dhu Varren Rd. A compelling, pixie-like figure with a British accent, she wears a lavender shirt, the same take-notice color as her hair. “Write a story on the secret of Carrot Way,” she tells them, then leans in, saying conspiratorially: “It’s a secret that only you know.” Some kids giggle in suspense, some frown in confusion, but after a few questions, they’re off with their volunteer mentors to write their stories.

This is Telling It, a program Gordon-Gurfinkel coordinates through the U-M Residential College. Under her supervision, RC students, along with guest instructors, draw on the arts, mainly creative writing, to help raise self-esteem and improve confidence and communication skills in homeless and other “at-risk” children and teens. Besides Carrot Way, Telling It meets in Ypsilanti at the Riverside Arts Center, and at COPE, an alternative middle and high school.

Trained in drama, Gordon-Gurfinkel works hard to build trust. For teens, it takes time to feel secure enough to open up. Once they do, their stories pack a punch. They write about being heroes, about gang pressure, family conflicts, financial hardships, and emotional struggles. For some, the impact is immediate and powerful. Gordon-Gurfinkel says one boy “decided to end his involvement with the Bloods and write a poem about it. He’s still struggling–and gets regularly jumped by his old gang.” But he stayed with Telling It as long as he was at COPE.

Participants write poetry, rap, diaries, and fiction. “… Underneath my robes is a scarred body. / Underneath my scarred body, a pure heart,” wrote one COPE student. “… My daddy always blaming me / My Momma was always getting beat,” wrote another. But not all stories are sad. Elementary kids write about what makes them special: “Because I’m good at soccer … because I like basketball.”

Many kids arrive for the six-to-eleven-week program skeptical and suspicious. Creating a “safe space” for the students involves activities and games where “the group develops a bond,” explains Gordon-Gurfinkel. “They have to solve a problem, overcome something together.” For example, she says, Telling It leaders pose a “Question of the Day” (like “What makes you special?”) and “go round the circle so everyone answers. It becomes a routine, so even resistant kids do it eventually.” Participants are given notebooks, arts and crafts supplies, and snacks. Guest artists teach everything from mime to capoeira, a Brazilian art form that combines martial arts, music, and dance.

Born and bred in London, Deb Gordon graduated from its Central School of Speech and Drama–or, “as we called it, Screech and Trauma.” She taught for two years in London’s inner-city schools, drawing on the creative arts. After moving to San Francisco in 1986, she worked at odd jobs ranging from babysitting to clerking in a bagel shop while she and several fellow artists worked with children in homeless shelters. She used theater; another artist used masks, others music and visual arts. “That was the seed of Telling It,” she says.

In the Bay Area, Gordon met and married Russian-born Eli Gurfinkel. They moved to Ann Arbor in 2003 when he landed a job as a photographer at the late Ann Arbor News (he is now studying nursing at the U-M). While raising their two children, Maya and Avi, Gordon-Gurfinkel became friends with Kate Mendeloff, senior lecturer at the Residential College and creator of the popular outdoor Shakespeare in the Arb theater. The connection resulted in Gordon-Gurfinkel’s being hired, eight years ago, to collaborate on teaching an RC course, “Empowering Community Through Creative Expression.” Students do mandatory internships in the Telling It program. Class discussions focus on how the arts empower people and communities and promote social justice.

Though well educated and raised in a loving family, Gordon-Gurfinkel, like many of the kids she teaches, is no stranger to loss and struggle. Her “hip and happening” father, an antiques dealer, died of Hodgkin’s disease at thirty-five. Her feisty schoolteacher mother suffered from Crohn’s disease, a chronic gastrointestinal inflammation. Now seventy-four, her mother “was pronounced dead at least three times in her life, but she always rallied,” Gordon-Gurfinkel says. “She was incredibly resilient.” Because of her mother’s illness, she and her brother were farmed out to different relatives before the government provided a cook-housekeeper.

As an adult, after the birth of her second child, Gordon-Gurfinkel suffered almost two years of postpartum depression. She says it began to lift after she watched an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show that displayed the brutal treatment of women around the world, with particularly horrifying footage of a woman being stoned to death. “I got up and decided I had to do something,” Gordon-Gurfinkel recalls. She began to volunteer in the public schools and Ozone House, and also wrote and directed a play about bullying.

Last summer, her daughter, Maya, now thirteen, acted as mentor for some Telling It programs. Down the road, son Avi, ten, may join in. Gordon-Gurfinkel has found a way to bottle her magic, offering navigational tools to others who want to do what she does: excite the healing powers of imagination in uncertain young lives.