'Freedom Writer' brings message of hope to Chester Middle School CREW students

Maria Reyes of Long Beach, Calif., talks Thursday to students at Chester Middle School about her experiences and how being a Freedom Writer changed her life.
Maria Reyes of Long Beach, Calif., talks Thursday to students at Chester Middle School about her experiences and how being a Freedom Writer changed her life.

CHESTER -- Maria Reyes knew three things about her life at age 11.

She would get pregnant young like her mother. She would go to jail like her father. And she, a third-generation gang member, would end up in an early grave like so many other kids on her block in Long Beach, Calif.

Then, she met 23-year-old Erin Gruwell in Room 203 of Woodrow Wilson High School. At first, she couldn't stand the woman she viewed as the "great white hope," she said.

She'd seen them before. "They run out of your world just as quickly as they walk in," Reyes told about 200 students at the Chester Middle School auditorium Thursday afternoon.

But Gruwell was determined, and she showed Reyes and her classmates in 1994 that they could move beyond their pain and find their own voices, their own successes. The class was depicted in the 2007 movie "Freedom Writers."

Now 27, Reyes is part of the Freedom Writers Foundation, a nonprofit organization that encourages students to pursue higher education and engage their communities.

On Thursday, she shared her story with members of King's CREW, a Chester Middle School group that studies the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. and promotes unity and community service. Led by two first-year teachers, Clif Adkins and Ronald Reid, the CREW -- an acronym for commitment, respect, education and wealth -- began in the fall as a way to keep kids out of gangs. The group has grown to more than 200 members.

Adkins sent an e-mail to the Freedom Writers Foundation in November, asking if one of the members of Gruwell's class could talk to the CREW, which also encourages journal writing. After reading a Herald article about the CREW, Reyes decided to come talk to the group, Adkins said. In the "Freedom Writers" movie, Reyes is depicted in the character Eva.

The name "Freedom Writers" was taken from the Freedom Riders of the civil rights movement, which Gruell's class studied. And in a time when racial hostility was running high in their hometown, Gruwell's students read about the heartbreak of other young people such as Anne Frank, who died during the Holocaust. They began writing about their lives.

The idea was that writing would help these students -- the ones who most teachers had written off -- cope with their problems and move on with their lives.

For Reyes, hope didn't exist for much of her life. She saw her cousin gunned down by police when she was 5 years old. Her father spent years in prison. Her mother worked three jobs but still couldn't always provide a hot meal for her family.

Reyes read Anne Frank's diary when she was 15 and on house arrest. Her motivation was to prove Gruwell that she had nothing in common with Anne Frank.

She was wrong. Reyes connected with the small girl from a place far from her home. But what struck her about the child was that, despite all her suffering, Anne Frank believed people were good at heart.

That's when Reyes realized she had to let go of her anger. She had to forgive.

"I had to let go of all of that for me to be able to say this is me and I have something important to say," she said.

On Thursday, the CREW got that message.

"Some of what she said was happening in my life," said 14-year-old Jasmine Ward, who sat on the front row and hugged Reyes afterward. "I really needed to hear something like that. She really touched me."

For Reid, the 25-year-old teacher, Reyes' comments about being one of the kids who was written off as disruptive and hopeless hit home for the Sumter native.

Reid said he was one of those kids. But like Reyes, a teacher also told him he could have a better life.

Now, that's what he tells his students.