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Our instructors come from a variety of backgrounds. Some are retired teachers and some have never taught before. Some are poets and some are not. But we all have a passion for poetry and a strong commitment to our mission: to help people find their voices, and tap into their creativity and individuality.


Like our teachers, our participants also come from a variety of backgrounds. But one thing they all share is a strong desire to express themselves and tell their stories, to dig deep for self-understanding, and to develop the self-awareness that will help them with life outside and wherever their path takes them. Much of the programming our participants get while incarcerated is geared toward the practical side of life outside; our programs help them with their inner lives.

Please consider volunteering! Prior teaching experience is absolutely not required. Contact us for more information.

Our Volunteers

Ellen Bass is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Her poetry includes, Like a Beggar (Copper Canyon Press, 2014),  The Human Line (Copper Canyon Press, 2007) and Mules of Love (BOA Editions, 2002). She co-edited (with Florence Howe) the first major anthology of women’s poetry, No More Masks! (Doubleday, 1973). Among her many awards are Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the California Arts Council, the Lambda Literary Award, and three Pushcart Prizes. She has also published non-fiction books, including The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. Ellen served as Poet Laureate of Santa Cruz from 2014-2016, and has been named the 2019 Artist of the Year by the Santa Cruz County Arts Commission. Ellen's most recent book of poems, Indigo, was published in early 2022, .

Ellen founded poetry workshops at Salinas Valley State Prison and the Santa Cruz, CA jails. She currently teaches in the low residency MFA writing program at Pacific University.

Nancy Gomez has a Masters in Fine Arts Degree in Creative Writing with an emphasis in poetry from Pacific University, and with Ellen Bass is the co-founder of the Santa Cruz Poetry Project. She has poems published or forthcoming in River Styx, Rattle, The Bellingham Review and Nimrod where she was a semi-finalist for the Pablo Neruda Poetry Prize. Nancy was recently included in a volume of Best American Poetry. She has taught poetry at Salinas Valley State Prison and currently serves as the co-founder of the Santa Cruz Poetry Project on a volunteer basis.

Renee Winter, co-director of Santa Cruz Poetry Projecct, is a writer who concentrates on memoir. Her essays have been published in the 2016 anthology, Tales of our Lives, Reflection Pond;  and in the literary journals The Coachella Review; Phren-z, and Qu. Another essay is forthcoming in Exposition Review. Renee presented at the 2016 Celebration of the Muse, an event honoring women writers in the Santa Cruz area. A retired attorney, Renee practiced law for over 35 years. Renee has enjoyed teaching in the Poetry Project at the Santa Cruz County Main Jail and Rountree Medium Facility since July, 2016 and hosted a poetry jam at the Main Jail in August, 2017.   

Deb Culmer, co-director of Santa Cruz Poetry Project, is an aspiring poet, formerly employed by UC Santa Cruz Observatories. She has been writing poetry on and off since age 17, and has been involved in volunteer work at the Santa Cruz County Jail for a number of years. A series of happy coincidences brought her into the Santa Cruz Poetry Project, where she has been teaching women's and men's classes since early 2017. 


Nicole Sibena Ticea, Volunteer Emeritus, is an undergraduate studying physics and neuroscience at Stanford University. Over the years she has dabbled with poetry, screenwriting, and prose; at present, she is writing a sci-fi novel bringing together her interests in science, society, and the criminal justice system. Nicole got involved with the Santa Cruz Poetry Project through a series of happy coincidences and now counts herself extremely lucky to work with such exceptional students. 

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Volunteer Emeritus Nestor Walters was born in Bangladesh, raised in Greece, and served ten years in the US Navy. He now studies mathematics and writes for his school paper at Stanford University. Find him at

Volunteer Emeritus Barbara Leon has had a long career in journalism, writing and editing, and was a student for many years of Poetry Project founder, Ellen Bass. Barbara’s poems have appeared in a variety of journals, magazines and anthologies, and in her book, The Songbird Catcher, Collected Poems, which was published in 2015 by Many Names Press. She has facilitated poetry classes in Santa Cruz County’s Rountree Jail since the Fall of 2016.


Volunteer Emeritus Sally Neas is an essayist, journalist, lover of poetry and, most recently, a graduate student. She currently teaches writing at UC Davis and with the Santa Cruz Poetry Project. A career educator, she is thrilled to join the Poetry Project where her students are perhaps the most engaged she has ever had. 

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Volunteer Emeritus Olivia Gatwood is a writer, performer, and educator from Albuquerque, New Mexico. She is the author of two books, Life of the Party and New American Best Friend, and tours internationally performing her poems in mostly punk venues. She currently lives in Santa Cruz. 

The late Robert Sward, friend and volunteer teacher, was born on the Jewish North Side of Chicago, bar mitzvahed, sailor, amnesiac, university professor (Cornell, Iowa, Connecticut College), newspaper editor, food reviewer, father of five children, husband to four wives. His writing career was described by critic Virginia Lee as a "long and winding road." In addition to his writings, Volunteer Emeritus Robert taught classes and led workshops on memoir and autobiography at UC Santa Cruz, Cabrillo College, Esalen, and elsewhere, including as a volunteer at Louden Nelson Senior Community Center in Santa Cruz. We mourn the passing of Robert in 2022, he will be fondly remembered by his words, and by his deeds. 

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