Author and poet Charles Ellis, who organized the Power of Words Poetry Slam last Wednesday at the Sanfoka Center, knows the therapeutic value of poetry.

He grew up in an abusive home in a tough West Baltimore neighborhood. Ellis, 37, admits he lived a life on the streets, and spent 13 years in jail for murder after shooting his father who was abusing his mother.

“I had issues,” said Ellis, who began writing poems in jail to vent his frustration.

“While I was in there, I did poetry shows. And people came to see them. Poetry for myself is an outlet to relay my thoughts, and I just kept writing.”

Upon his release, Ellis published a collection of poems called Beneath My Eyes in March 2008. Wanting a new start in life, he moved to Chicago with his wife. He began working at one of the McDonald’s restaurants owned by his uncle Ron Lofton. His uncle has five West Side McDonald’s, including one in Austin at 5015 W. Madison near Lavergne. The West Side chain will employ some of the kids that participated in the poetry slam.

A staunch advocate against domestic abuse, Ellis would take his message to schools to talk about the impact of violence. That’s when the idea of a poetry contest came to him. He recalled a female student asking him to read a poem that talked about her relationship with a man she was too young to be involved with.

The poem, he noted, was about her life, not necessarily gangs and gun violence. Ellis said inner-city students are often pigeonholed with one type of experience, but that, he insists, is not the case. Ellis said he wanted to give youth an outlet to talk about their lives while also giving the community an opportunity to hear what they have to say. Ellis added that the job component of the slam is more tangible than cash prizes – with a job, youth acquire skills, opportunities and experiences to empower themselves.

Lillian Lofton, of Lofton and Lofton Management, severed as one of four judges at last Wednesday’s slam, and was impressed with the students’ work.

“I got little chills going through my body. I really felt it, and I felt their pain,” said Lofton, who joked that a talent show could be a way to find good employees. “Maybe we ought to change our criteria for hiring. You got to show some type of talent.”

The students will start their new jobs the first of the year.