Chales Mims, 17, a junior at Denfeld High School, has a compelling story to tell. Though right now she’s keeping it a secret with a small group of people, next year millions of people will be able to read her story in a new book published by the Freedom Writers Foundation.
The book, to be named “Dear Freedom Writers,” will include 50 stories of students all over the world, and Chales (pronounced sha-less) is one of them.
“Chales is one of those students who just have the spark,” said Yesenia Leyva, director of education at the Freedom Writers Foundation. “She is struggling against stigmas and labels she does not want to own or have a power over her destiny.”
Denfeld Assistant Principal Marcia Nelson encouraged and convinced Chales to apply for the opportunity. Nelson, who has worked with the Freedom Writers Foundation for 18 years, convinced the selection committee Chales would be perfect for the project.
"Chales has always been a student that I see as someone who’s got this really broad range of a personality and capabilities. I don’t think she’s begun to reach her potential. "
— Marcia Nelson, Denfeld High School assistant principal
“Marcia read us quotes from Chales’ diaries and homework assignments, and we just knew she had to be a part of this,” Leyva said.
Chales and the other student authors met over Zoom with Erin Gruwell, the founder of the foundation, and introduced themselves. Leyva said Chales is always the first one to ask to be unmuted to “give support, love and honor to the bravery and courage of these student authors.”
“Chales might be young, but she is a teacher to every one of us who have taken her in and allowed her space,” Levya said.
Chales found out last month she was chosen. She was excited when she found out, but admits she tried to back out multiple times.
“I was scared. I didn’t know if I could do this. I didn’t know if I was ready,” Chales said. “But after talking to (Nelson) and thinking about it, I was like, it’s always nice to try new things and it felt like it would be good for me.”
Nelson said there are enough students at Denfeld with stories to fill their own book, but she chose Chales because she communicates well and connects with people.
“Chales has always been a student that I see as someone who’s got this really broad range of a personality and capabilities,” Nelson said. “I don’t think she’s begun to reach her potential.”
Wednesday afternoon, Denfeld held a recognition ceremony in the auditorium for Chales in front of Duluth media, Denfeld teachers and her family members. She was also given a new web camera and computer courtesy of the foundation.
In 1994, Erin Gruwell was a first-year high school teacher in Long Beach, California. She was given students no other teacher wanted to deal with. While teaching students of all different races, she learned most of them had never heard of the Holocaust, which shocked her. So she took them to a museum, had them read “The Diary of Anne Frank” and related it back to the students’ lives.
From there Gruwell had her students keep diaries of their lives, but they were kept anonymous due to the nature of what they were writing about. The students named themselves the Freedom Writers in honor of the Freedom Riders of the 1960s. The diaries were then compiled into a book and published in 1999.
"Chales has had a long period where she just doesn’t believe in herself and I really think this is going to drive her to move forward and be successful."
— Sarah Laulanen, Duluth Public Schools social worker
In 2007, their stories were told on the big screen in a feature film called “Freedom Writers” starring Hilary Swank and Patrick Dempsey.
Chales said she first learned of the Freedom Writers when she watched a movie in class in ninth grade. She started reading the book, “The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them.”
“Ninth grade was a very hard year for me, especially when I first started. Then I met Sarah and she really helped me with a lot of stuff and helped me pass a lot of my classes,” Chales said.
Chales was referring to Duluth school district social worker Sarah Laulanen. Laulanen said they met when Chales was in eighth grade, in a service learning class for students identified as needing some extra social-emotional and academic support.
“Chales has had a long period where she just doesn’t believe in herself and I really think this is going to drive her to move forward and be successful,” Laulanen said of Chales being picked for the Freedom Writers project. “I’m so excited for her because she is a wonderful, smart, amazing student and I think this can really take her places.”
Chales said Laulanen is her Erin Gruwell. Laulanen said she feels honored to hear that.
“That’s my goal, every day to just help to motivate students that sometimes don’t feel motivated themselves,” she said. “Chales just has so much in her so it’s an honor to be compared to Erin.”
To learn more about the Freedom Writers Foundation, or to donate, visit freedomwritersfoundation.org.