LAYTON -- The young girl stood slumped, her chin low, blond hair hanging to cover her face except for one burning-red cheek as she read her poem to her sixth-grade class at Layton's Lincoln Elementary.
All her 11- and 12-year-old classmates applauded, and the visiting poet told her that her poem was amazing. Looking up to reveal a huge smile, the girl raced to her teacher for a hug.
"She could barely speak, she was so shy," said Rise Timpke, sixth-grade teacher, as the girl returned to her seat to cheer the next reader.
"The first time she read her work and got positive feedback, she beamed. I had never seen her face like that before. You can see what a difference he has made. It's all him."
"He" is Amir Jackson, founder and director of Nurture the Creative Mind, a nonprofit foundation that helps at-risk children increase their self-esteem through self-expression and positive feedback. Jackson is also the foundation's sole worker, and since 2007 has personally led workshops attended by more than 500 youths from Weber, Davis and Salt Lake counties.
This month, Jackson was among 135 people to be named an inaugural Newman Civic Fellow. The award recognizes inspiring college student leaders who have demonstrated an investment in finding solutions for challenges facing communities throughout the country. The Fellows are nominated by university presidents.
"People have told me this work changed their lives," said Jackson, 30, a Weber State University psychology major. "When students read what they've written, it takes me back to a time when I was 12. That's when I realized this has an emotional benefit."
Jackson, a native of Rochester, N.Y., was a young boy when his mother married a man who had no use for a "leftover" child, Jackson said. As Jackson's mother and stepfather had more children, the man's hostility grew and verbal abuse gave way to physical abuse. For his safety, Jackson was sent to live with his birth father's mother and sister.
"I was naturally kind of meandering to a negative place at a time in life when a lot of people get lost," Jackson said. He was misbehaving in class when he wasn't skipping school entirely.
Then, for no particular reason, Jackson put his dark, melancholy feelings into a poem, which he showed to his aunt Pamela.
"She said, 'Amir, this is good. I want you to keep writing, and keep giving me your poems,' " Jackson said. "She bought me a journal. That positivity felt good, and I became addicted to it. It was a defining moment."
Jackson continued writing during four years in the Air Force, including an assignment to Hill Air Force Base. Jackson set his sights on Weber State and a degree he hopes will lead to his working full time for his foundation. He currently divides his time among Nurture the Creative Mind, studies at Weber State, and working for the Davis School District as a special education employee.
Timpke said when she first heard about Jackson's program in 2007, her expectations were low.
"My daughter, Sarah, was in one of the first student groups," she said. "She's a sophomore at Northridge High now, and she has published poetry and gone to district conferences. She has kept every journal she had, and she writes three to five poems a week, just because."
Sarah Timpke, now 15, remains a Jackson booster.
"Amir taught me that no poem and no emotion is wrong, and everything you write is perfect because it came from you," Sarah said. "He is an inspiration. Amir cares about every student and wants them to succeed. I am where I am today, writing-wise, because of him."
Jackson has published a book of poetry and stories by young survivors of abuse. The book, titled, "Yes, I am STILL here," is available through nurturethecreativemind.com.
Back in Timpke's sixth-grade classroom, students continued reading their work about crying themselves to sleep, the beauty of flowers, and even the virtues of Airsoft pellet guns.
A young boy read a poem about mourning a death. A young girl stated, among other observations, that "Tears are only water."
Jackson high-fived his young students, who are applauded both when they stand and when they finish.
"The foundation has given my life purpose," Jackson said. "This is something that I wake up and think about. I know what I should be doing. Everything else is secondary. We don't make money or fatten wallets, but I am continuously happy."