CFPCA alumnus Rick Shaughnessy ’80 helps disadvantaged children find their poetic voice

“Delicate as a butterfly, beautiful, fragile and easily crushed. There are many types of freedom; association, religion, expression and action. There’s freedom of thought and freedom to be alive and a song that says it’s a word for nothing left to lose.” — Maria, grade 7

So reads the first stanza of a poem written by a student at Monarch School in California, the only school in the country dedicated to serving students who have been or currently are without stable housing. And Wayne State University alumnus Rick Shaughnessy — who has volunteered for six years at this safe haven — is instrumental in the children at Monarch School’s instruction in prose and poetry.

Shaughnessy, a 1980 journalism graduate of the College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts, remembers his first class in World Literature and Translation as one that opened his eyes to the simple and substantiative poetic style of Pablo Neruda, which he teaches to the Monarch students. “Poetry that they can understand, as it is written in Spanish, the native language of the majority of his students,” Shaughnessy says.

Rick Shaughnessy holds the mic for a Monarch School student while she reads poetry. The Wayne State University alumnus has volunteered for six years at this safe haven in California for students who have been or currently are without stable housing.

He credits his Wayne State education for preparing him for success. “Wayne does not get the credit they deserve for providing a real-world education, utilizing practitioners from places like the Detroit Free Press and the Automotive News to teach night classes,” Shaughnessy says. This is where he says he really thrived, studying with a diverse group of individuals, both culturally and age-wise, and learned “how it all really works. Not just theory, but real-world skills.”

Not long after graduation, Shaughnessy’s career in journalism led him to California. There he met the love of his life, Sylvia, and eventually began his own strategic marketing and communication firm. While he has worked hard to earn the life of privilege he provides for his family, Shaughnessy says, he wasn’t going to settle back and reap the benefits. Instead, he reached out to the community just around the corner to help offer hope and opportunity to children that society struggles to embrace.

“Rick is a model of what an engaged community member can do with resources and time. He is an everyday presence on campus who treats students with dignity and respect,” says Jesus Nuñez Jr., Director of Community and Corporate Engagement for the Monarch School. “Rick is super engaged, to the point of calling in when he may be late, and keeping us apprised of his schedule. His commitment to the children is extraordinary and he deserves a statue for all that he has contributed to this school and the lives of the children.”

Without a formal teaching certificate, Shaughnessy shares his passion for poetry with students who otherwise might not be exposed to literature. The children are comprised of a cross-section of abilities, dreams, and innate intelligence, just as one might find in any school community. However, due to their circumstances, many of them struggle with basic skills such as reading and simple arithmetic — building blocks of education.

But through poetry, the children share their innermost thoughts, hopes and experiences. The results are stunning. For example, the video above of readings that were recorded during the pandemic, when students were not able to gather for the yearly Launch Party celebrating the publication of a new book of poetry in The Odes Project.

Children flourish when they are interested and intrigued, Shaughnessy says. In addition to prose, he also shares with them his passion for photography. They learn that photography is a process of documentation, not just taking a picture on their phones. “Getting behind a lens puts them in a different space. Taking a picture is a deliberate, thoughtful act” Shaughnessy says.

In addition to teaching the art of photography, he is also the Monarch School’s official team photographer. Taking hundreds of pictures of the students engaged in sports, Shaughnessey has them made into posters that are placed around the school as a celebration of accomplishment and pride.

Since being semi-retired, he and Sylvia plan to travel next spring. More importantly, Shaughnessy says he “plans to make the most of his years by upping his volunteer commitment” as while moving into full retirement.

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