Amaya Albelo, Houck Middle School's "Reflection Room" supervisor, applauds a student at an event to celebrate the release of a collection of writing from students frequently in detention or in-school suspension (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Julian Smith used to spend a lot of time in detention at Houck Middle School.

The eighth grader is one of about a dozen students who were in and out of the school’s “Reflection Room,” where Houck students go if they’re being disruptive in class or have an in-school suspension to serve.

But now, Smith said he’s hardly ever sent there. He’s improved his grades and is focused on preparing for high school and someday, college.

What changed? He said it was due to one adult at Houck who listened, and a writing project she started so students like Smith could put down their stories.

Smith and 12 classmates, all once regulars in the Houck Reflection Room, recently self-published a book of poetry and personal essays called “The Voice In Us” under the direction of Amaya Albelo, the room’s supervisor.

The essays and poems aren’t signed by individual students, allowing the teens anonymity.

But the collection offers a profound glimpse into the lives of students between 12 and 14 dealing with eviction, domestic violence, poverty, drug addiction and parents in prison.

“Our stories need to be told because we deserve the chance to write our own,” said Andrea Arellano Cruz, an eighth-grade student who contributed to the book.

Bryanna Arredondo, left, Andrea Arellano Cruz and Julian Smith, students at Houck Middle School, answer questions on an author panel celebrating the release of their book "The Voice In Us" on March 9, 2020 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

One 13-year-old described moving to Oregon with their mother and brother after their dad was arrested and sent to prison.

“She would never spend any time with us due to the fact that she was constantly working and trying to provide for us. So, me and my brother often felt alone,” the student wrote. “I would sometimes cook for us, since my mom wasn’t home. At a young age, I already knew how to be responsible for myself.”

Another 13-year-old wrote about spending most of elementary school hanging out with older teens and adults who were involved in gangs, and selling drugs starting in second grade.

“Over the years, I’ve lost 15 friends to overdoses, gang activity and prison,” the student wrote.

The essay ends with the student hoping to rebuild trust with their mother: “I want to show her I can change and set a better example for my little brothers. They are looking up to me and I would never want them to do the stuff that I’ve done.”

The 60-page volume includes many moments of tragedy, but also hope and resilience from students who say they’ve learned to forgive, grow or change as a result of their experiences.

“It was just hard thinking about it, like putting my stuff into words,” Smith said of his piece. “I would just ignore it.”

The students shared their work and signed copies of the book Monday at a school event attended by dozens of teachers, counselors and Salem-Keizer administrators, including Superintendent Christy Perry.

Eleven of the 13 who participated spoke about how being part of the project affected them. Many said they gained a new appreciation for the struggles their classmates are going through, and hoped their work could help others understand the reality of teens’ lives.

“Writing this story gave me the control I needed over my life,” said student Madison Bush.

Houck Middle School students Madison Bush, left, and Alejandra Calderón sign copies of "The Voice In Us," a self-published book of personal essays and poetry by students (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Albelo began working at Houck last year as a substitute when she was just 18. She connected with students in the Reflection Room in a way previous employees hadn’t, principal Suzanne Leonard said.

School administrators hired her this year and said she’s been able to run the room on her own, a task that has typically taken several adults.

Albelo graduated from Salem-Keizer’s alternative high school, Roberts, and built relationships with students because her life has been similar to many of theirs.

The writing project grew out of her efforts to find things for students stuck in suspension or detention to do if they didn’t have schoolwork. Albelo began reading books with her regular students about people who had dealt with abuse, family death and other difficult topics many had struggled with.

The students connected to those stories, she said, so in October, she presented them with the idea of writing their own. Twenty-six students began drafting personal narratives, which Albelo edited through many drafts, giving feedback and support.

She planned to pay out of pocket to publish enough copies for the students. But then district administrators learned of the effort and helped organize a larger event at Houck to recognize the students and a print run of 150 copies, enough for the students and many school employees.

The Monday gathering included cake and a sparkling apple cider toast in the Houck library. Student authors sat at a long table as a line of adults waited to get their copies of the book signed.

Smith said the size of the gathering and recognition was “crazy.”

Tamika Hampton, an assistant principal at Houck, said Albelo could relate to students that other adults at the school struggled to reach, she said. One student went from getting Fs and Ds to Bs and As after participating in the writing project.

“I was really excited about the way Amaya was thinking outside the box,” Hampton said.

Albelo’s students have clear affection for her, calling her “Miss Amaya.”

Arellano Cruz said Albelo encouraged her and other students, pushing them more than other adults and telling them they can succeed.

Smith said he grew to like her because she takes the time to understand students and help them solve their problems.

“If we have something to say, she’ll listen and be there for us,” he said.

Ashley Morales, an eighth grader, said the project helped show her she can grow.

“I wanted people to know that I’d been through things I thought I’d never get over,” said eighth grader Ashley Morales, speaking about her contribution to the project. “I’ve learned that I have to go through things to better myself. Look at us – we’re still here wanting our voices to be heard.”

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander at [email protected] or 503-575-1241.