"Diary" Open for Teens Nationwide
By Keith Martin, Assistant Editor

Traditionally, diaries have been a place where young people can divulge their deepest feelings in a private setting, sharing the contents when they are ready or perhaps never at all. Instead of being tucked under a mattress or hidden in a closet, one such outlet for emotion is bringing youth from around the country together to share their thoughts via the Internet.

For seven years, the
Diary Project has allowed teens to open up to their peers on issues from eating disorders to religion in an electronic format. Because it is accessible through the Internet, gender, geography and family income are non-factors. The only important category to fit in is "teenager."

"Teens talk about the surface stuff [openly], but the deep stuff is hard to talk about," says Judi Shils, founder and director of the Project. "It is important that kids have the opportunity to get stuff out, realize that they are not struggling alone and can really support the process."

While Shils says the fact that this particular diary is very open as opposed to the sentiment-filled, closed notebook of old, there is still an air of privacy due to the fact that teens submitting their thoughts use screen names rather than their real identity. 

"For kids to have a site where they can remain anonymous, not feel like they will be tracked, their parents will be told or they will be identified as who they really are is important," she says.

In its infancy, the site required users to register their age, gender, what area they were from and other basic information before posting a message, because Shils and her associates thought this was supposed to be collected on a website. When they realized that they were calling the submissions "anonymous" yet asking for identifiable characteristics of their authors, it was removed.

"As soon as we eliminated [the registration area], we got four times the traffic," she says.

One Girl's Openness Inspires Others

Shils is not a counselor nor psychologist, she is simply a person who cares about what kids have to say.

After spending nearly three decades producing television, she moved towards writing about kids' issues for a Northern California newspaper shortly after the birth of her daughter. Through the newspaper, she helped to bring a young author named Zlata Filipovic to the United States as part of the United Nations' 50th anniversary celebration in 1995. 

Shils arranged visits and escorted Filipovic to numerous schools to discuss her book, Zlata's Diary, a first-person account of the 11-year-old's life in war-torn Sarajevo and the emotions she felt. What Shils discovered about the emotions of young people through those sessions moved her to do something more.

"I was so amazed as these kids [at the schools] were willing to open up their lives to her," says Shils. "I came home [after all the engagements were over] and thought 'where can I give kids a place to talk openly, without judgment.'"

After creating a website in one night and advertising its creation in her column, messages began to come in from teens via e-mail that were simply posted on the site, with no interactivity between participants. Shils, however, did reply to each submission.

"When kids first replied and I'd get back to them, they'd ask 'how old are you' and 'what school do you go to,'" she says. "I told them the truth and thought they would go away, but they came back."

This first foray into helping teens deal with issues facing them branched into a series of successful pieces on local television, where teens would record what they had written about their inner emotions. It was after this work that Shils moved to make the website interactive, where teens could respond to their peers' messages and provide support for one another.

"[The Project became] a place for kids to dump [what they were holding in emotionally] and talk about what was going on in their lives," says Shils. "'You are not alone, you'll never be' is the underlying [message] of the site. There are plenty of kids who [understand that] and have shown me the incredible generosity and spirit kids can have."

Proof of the steady audience the website has attracted came in a poll taken last year on the site that showed 75 percent of teens who come to the site do so everyday. Shils admits that afterschool hours are the busiest on the site, as kids have had their feelings pent up all day and visit the Project for release and to see if others share their feelings.

"I think when I started [the site], if one or two kids got to a better place, then that meant it was successful," she says. "I know the impact the site has had on many more."

Off the Internet & Into the Classroom

As the site grew in popularity among teens, Shils decided to take the Project "off-line" and bring the spirit of the website to area schools. Printing out online submissions, she approached schools with the idea for open forum meetings with students. While it took a while for schools to buy-in to the idea of her mission, Shils has done about 75 workshops in the last two to three years, allowing students to share their feelings with peers, parents and school staff.

"I wasn't invited [to the schools], so I knocked on the doors loudly and created a relationship with the teachers," she says. "The greatest feeling is when they call now for me to come a second and third time - now they know it is okay and they are embracing it."

At Redwood High School in Larkspur, California, students in the Service Learning Program work with Shils as interns at the Diary Project, with some serving as content monitors. In November 2001, these students organized a night for peers, parents and school staff to come together and listen to how teens felt.

"Students were responsible for leading the discussion, so when there was a lag, [they] had to talk," says Barbara Owens, an English teacher at Redwood, who oversees the Service Learning Program. "Some adults were both respectful to what they were hearing and sharing their own experiences, so there was that intergenerational experience. That was profound. I saw adults get behind 'teens' [as a group]."

Owens adds that with the events of Columbine and September 11th, everyone's focus has turned to watching and listening, but with that needs to be the call for action. This can be done through more events like the one at her school and Shil's creation.

"What Judi brings to teens is so powerful - she is so with it," says Owens. "It comes down to resiliency. It really is the accumulation of factors that allows [teens] to bounce back from issues and typically, for kids [that can be] threatening. How can kids get past that? The Diary Project is one way."

The Diary Deck

As emotional and powerful as the school workshops could be, Shils felt guilty after they were over. She had provided students with a platform to express themselves, many for the first time, and then left. In order to continue the open communication established in these workshops, Shils created the Diary Deck, a tool for both students and teachers to use anytime.

The Deck takes a teen's anonymous diary entry off of the website and onto flash cards that also feature three discussion questions. The Deck can be used during classroom time, after school or even during planned "Diary Deck Nights," which area students have begun to organize. During these events, the students are in charge, from organizing the evening to calling for original submissions from fellow students to use in tandem with the Deck.

"[Once discussion begins, participants] start to think and as the dialogue continues, it gets back to personal stuff and what they are dealing with in their own lives," says Shils. "The Deck makes it easier to connect to other people and once that happens, [teens] see it is okay, hear the response and feel safe to share what they are going through."

While Chronicle Books will soon publish the Diary Deck for distribution across the nation, Shils hopes this tool and the Project as a whole open up the consciousness of school administrators on how important it is to aid teens in dealing with their emotions.

"I think I hope the Diary Project is something that is integrated into every high school classroom as a time in the course of a teen's day where they can focus on themselves and they get to a place where they feel comfortable that what they are feeling is okay," she says. "If they do, they will get to a better place."

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