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Poetry in motion to help students improve their mental health

There is healing happening right now at the High Tech High campus in Clairemont Mesa.

The medicine is poetry in motion.

It's being administered in partnership with the school and Poets Underground.


The nonprofit arts organization was born online during the COVID-19 shutdown, and quickly expanded to include a small publishing company and curated open mic events.

“Poets Underground’s mission is to create and foster healthy, inclusive communities through the arts," said founder Sunny Rey.

When she started the organization in 2020, she was a single mother with two children and a past that included homelessness and a life in foster care homes. Her poetry reflects the trauma and the healing from what she calls a broken place.

"(I write in) fragmented sentences, fragmented ideas. They don't come together until the end. They land when you say they land," Rey said.

Her husband, Anthony Azzarito, is editor-in-chief of the organization.

Sunny Rey (left) and her husband Anthony Azzarito (right) run the Poets Underground arts organization now working to bring poetry healing curriculum to high school students across San Diego County, San Diego, Calif., February 21, 2024
M.G. Perez
Sunny Rey (left) and her husband Anthony Azzarito (right) run Poets Underground. The arts organization is now working to bring poetry healing curriculum to high school students across the county. San Diego, Calif., Feb. 21, 2024

Both are published poets, former single parents and survivors. Azzarito's trauma began as an angry young boy looking to be loved and accepted. They found each other and blended their families with five children combined. Now they’re sharing their stories, talent, and healing with students.

“When I was in high school, I didn’t have anybody to tell me, 'This is how you do this with emotions,'" Azzarito said.

Earlier this month, the couple launched a four-week program that brings professional poets on Wednesdays to 9th-grade students at the HTH Mesa campus.

The first session featured poet Kind Weird Wild, who describes himself as a visionary artist who uses his creativity for self-awareness and emotional regulation.

He does art and music, but it’s the power of his spoken words that is used in the poetry healing curriculum. That included an original poem with a message of encouragement for freshmen who might be struggling with acceptance.

Vincent Silvestro, 15, was skeptical. It’s a hard turn from his love of physics to poetry. But, he’s open to letting his head connect to his heart.

“Everyone has had kind of bad thoughts and self-destructive ideas in their mind and it’s really awesome to see it expressed in what looks like a positive way," he said.

The class sessions also include directions from the other poets. Rey creates viscerally.

"All you gotta do is see into your mind and climb one step at a time, and find that you choose to be happy. Your life is crappy. Well, you can shape a new life but you better make it snappy!"
Kind Weird Wild

Freshmen at High Tech High Mesa are the first to use the new poetry healing curriculum presented in partnership with Poets Underground and their guest artists, San Diego, Calif., February 21, 2024.
M.G. Perez
Freshmen at High Tech High Mesa listen during a class by Poets Underground and their guest artists, San Diego, Calif., Feb. 21, 2024.

"I take a few breaths as I’m writing, because of the way poetry is written within your (physical) blueprint. The way that you breathe breaks up lines so you’re able to breathe through the moment," she said.

Azzarito brings light to the darkness of his trauma.

“Keeping everybody in the silence and pretending that everything is fine is not going to be the way how we heal. So, we bring it up in these fun interactive ways,” he said.

The poetry healing class is created in partnership with lesson plans from teachers as they address their students' mental health. High Tech High Mesa is the first.

Poets Underground is raising donations to take the program to more schools because the experiment appears to be working well.

“I loved it, and it shocked me because I feel like this was true poetry. It was definitely expressive,” said Lily Maleknejad, 14. 

Freshman Danie Valentine said the class has already inspired her writing.

“When you’re writing things that have such burden or have such a heaviness, it’s kind of a lie to end it in a happy outcome when that’s not where you’re at the moment," she said.

As a former special education teacher, I look forward to connecting with you and reporting on stories that often go underreported in education. #WeAreBetterTogether
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