This year at the Summer Fun Program, the camp took a turn into unknown territory (just before bowling) by scheduling its first ever poetry workshop. Poetry at a day camp for kids with diabetes? Absolutely, said Mary Elizabeth Bunzel, who led the hour-long activity: “They are so open and loving and willing, it just flows right out of them.”
Mary Elizabeth is the mother of four, including Eli, 24, who is a patient at the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center and daughter Loulie, 20, who has the pancreatic autoantibodies that indicate a higher risk for type 1 diabetes (T1D). But, devoted parent only begins to describe Mary Elizabeth. A philanthropist and volunteer leader who has tirelessly fundraised to find a cure for T1D, Mary Elizabeth is a member of the Berrie Center’s advisory board and co-hosts the Berrie Center’s annual Diabetes Research Panel in November. In addition to her efforts in TID, Mary Elizabeth is also passionate about various other educational and cultural endeavors, including the Kenyon Review, the 76-year-old literary journal published on the campus of Kenyon College in Ohio.
Mary Elizabeth is also a poet—although she may not know it. “I don’t like to say I am a poet,” said a modest Mary Elizabeth, who has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence in poetry, and whose work has been published many times. “There are poets, and I’m not one of them. But I love writing poetry and I love poetry. I always have.”
Her enthusiasm was easily conveyed to the 25 children with diabetes at her poetry workshop last month. Mary Elizabeth (who was an English major at UC Berkeley and a reporter and writer for many years) started her session by giving each child a wide-ruled composition notebook with his or her name on it. For inspiration, the children read and discussed the poetry of Langston Hughes (I Dream A World), Robert Frost (The Road Not Taken) and Emily Dickinson (‘Hope’ is the Thing with Feathers). After discussing and analyzing the three classics, they wrote poems of their own in their journals.
Said Mary Elizabeth: “I invited the children to think about their friends and family, their emotions, their dreams and even how they felt about having diabetes. One boy wanted to write about being a football player. One girl made up the word “swimagination” in a poem where she imagined going swimming. She was so proud of herself afterwards…Kids are innately open to the rhythms, vocabulary, mood and even metaphors in poetry...I think the kids enjoyed it, I know I did. Anytime I have the chance to hang out with adorable kids—it’s so life affirming.”
Added Robin Goland, MD, Berrie Center Co-Director, “The children were fully engaged, attentive and energized during gifted teacher Mary Elizabeth’s poetry workshop. At the end of the session, the children wrote poems and read them aloud to the group. Everyone who was there, including me, found it incredibly moving and inspiring.”
For the last couple of years, Mary Elizabeth has taken her poetry workshops to school children at Brilla College Prep, a charter school in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx and Success Prep Academy, a charter school in New Orleans.
“Even young students don’t have a lot of time for creative expression with words,” said Mary Elizabeth. So many children have great hearts and intelligence, she said, but also great need. “It’s a pleasure working with these kids.”