Gruwell, who is the president of the Freedom Writers Association wore her signature strand of pearls and personally greeted and connected with every person who entered the gym before her presentation.

Internationally renowned motivational speaker, Erin Gruwell – whose groundbreaking work with at-risk youth in Long Beach was the basis for the Hilary Swank movie “Freedom Writers” – inspired 370 youth and adults from throughout Siskiyou County last week.

Busloads of students and faculty members from seven schools attended the presentation, held at Dunsmuir High School on Dec. 5.

Gruwell, who is the president of the Freedom Writers Association wore her signature strand of pearls and personally greeted and connected with every person who entered the gym before her presentation.

Not realizing that the woman greeting them was the world famous Gruwell herself, someone asked her where the bathroom was, and, to her amusement, someone also asked her for a Band-aid.

The famous educator surprised the audience when she fondly revealed that she has a personal connection to Dunsmuir. She recounted riding the train all by herself as a young child to Dunsmuir to visit her grandparents, spending her summers here, and attending the Fourth of July Parades in Mount Shasta.

“This part of the world made a kid, who was scared and nervous, feel not so scared, and not so nervous,” she said. Later, in her closing remarks, Gruwell told the audience, “Coming here is like coming home.”

Gruwell captivated the audience with her storytelling about the wounded, emotionally-damaged, gang-involved students she’d worked with in the Los Angeles area. She said she became inspired to give her students the freedom to tell their own stories about their lives by writing in journals.

“I just wanted them to be whole,” she said.

Those raw journals were later compiled and published in 1999 as “The Freedom Writers Diary.” This later inspired filmmakers to produce the “Freedom Writers” movie.

Gruwell said this year’s publication of “The Freedom Writers Diary” is the 20th Anniversary Edition, and contains 20 new personal stories from her students, 20 years after their original high school journal entries were first published.

Gruwell also shared some of the success stories of “her kids,” who, as a result of their experience in her classroom and The Freedom Diary project, were able to heal and grow beyond all the damage and destruction of their early years. They went on to finish high school and have successful and fulfilling lives as adults, she said.

Every one of her 150 “Freedom Writer” students, all of whom had previously been destined to drop out of school, graduated from high school and went on to attain higher degrees, she said.

The audience also got to watch several dramatic film clips from the “Freedom Writers” movie, portraying the students and scenes that Gruwell was describing. The audience also participated in the revolutionary “game” Gruwell developed for her students, which forever changed the way they viewed themselves and each other.

She calls it the “Line Game,” explaining that, originally, students were invited to “stand on the line if...” This activity shows students how much they have in common with one another.

Due to the size of the audience – nearly 400 people were in the DHS gym on Dec. 5, including students from Butte Valley High School, Castle Rock Elementary School, Dunsmuir Elementary School, DHS, McCloud High School, and Mount Shasta High School – Gruwell modified the game for the space. Audience members were asked to “Stand if you know anyone who’s...

“...ever come upon rough times.

“...poor.

“...ever lost their home.

“...ever abused alcohol.

“...ever abused drugs.

“...ever been called ‘dumb,’ ‘stupid,’ or ‘nothing.’

“...ever suffered from depression.

“...ever thought about or tried to commit suicide.

“...ever lost their innocence.

“...ever lost...”

Not surprisingly, nearly everyone in the room, students and adults alike, were standing for the entire “Line Game.” Not only had everyone there been impacted by the stories they’d heard and seen that day, they were also impacted by the realization that they are not very different from one another. Or, as Gruwell put it, the realization that “I am not alone. I am no longer alone.”

Everyone came away with an invitation, or a challenge, from Gruwell.

“I encourage you to pick up a pen, write what you’ve got to write, tell what you’ve got to tell,” she said.

As an alternative to violence, Gruwell advocated, “Pick up a pen, rather than a fist, and write...” She added, “There’s a power with words. Words can leave a legacy.”

Following Gruwell’s presentation, similar to how she had personally greeted every single person as they arrived, Gruwell personally connected with each person before they left the gym, giving each one a hug.

Some students were so impacted by Gruwell and her message that they wanted to get their picture taken with her. DHS freshman Izick Hernandez said “I’ve never met anyone of that magnitude before!” It was particularly meaningful for Hernandez, because, he said, “I want to be a teacher one day.”

It wasn’t just the students who were positively affected by Gruwell and her message. DHS Class of 1985 graduate Paula Palmer attended the event with her daughter, Sydney Palmer, a DHS senior.

Palmer said that she and Sydney had watched “Freedom Writers” together, and that’s why she wanted to come hear Gruwell speak.

It was thanks to the efforts of DHS administrative assistant CBO Kim Vardanega that Gruwell spoke at the school. Gruwell said she met Vardanega at a conference several years ago, and was excited when she saw on Vardanega’s nametag that she was from Dunsmuir.

Vardanega said ever since that CASBO (California Association of School Business Officials) conference in Sacramento, she’s been working to get Gruwell to Dunsmuir.

“This was a community event – a life-changing community event,” said DHS staff member Arlene Dinges.