This post was contributed by Julia Ventola.
Tucked away in the heart of Chicago’s Wicker Park, 826CHI is a thriving non-profit writing and tutoring center, dedicated to Chicago’s six- to eighteen-year-old students. It is a member of Dave Eggers’ national organization, at which, throughout the country, volunteers and staff alike tutor over 30,000 students a year. That’s a lot of pens and pencils.
826CHI reaches about 4,000 of those students, thanks to the help of an inspiring staff and over 300 volunteers. These kind folks not only help students with their homework and writing skills, but they also run the super secret spy store that serves as a “cover” for the center. When students first enter the building, they walk through a small storefront that sells everything a sleuthful spy might need on any of his most daunting missions. Fake mustaches? Check. Binoculars? Check. Legends and keys to the most mischievous of maps? Check.
Although I’ve never worked in the store, I have had the honor of spending some one-on-one time with several students at 826CHI over the past year and a half. Last month I was also fortunate enough to observe a local elementary school’s visit to the center.
I arrive at 9:30 a.m. and find the rooms were eerily quiet. No children are laughing or whispering, nor weaving in and out of the desks, hands full of markers and notebooks. Instead, there are eight volunteers and a couple of staff members happily chatting at a large study table. Even though some people have just met, there is a real sense of camaraderie as everyone sits smiling and snacking on a belated breakfast. This is the proverbial calm before the storm—there is a Storytelling and Bookmaking field trip set to commence at 10 a.m.
Within minutes, I hear the front door open and a flood of small steps invade The Boring Store. There is a lot of excited chatter until a teacher tells everyone to use their “inside voices.” Twenty-eight 3rd grade students enter the main room, tossing their jackets on the couch and quickly line up to have their photo taken, fake mustaches provided; these pictures will serve as author photos for the book they are about to write with their classmates.
A screen is projected in front of the students, now sitting in the center of the room. A volunteer typist will write out their story for all to see. After Jeni, a long-time volunteer, discusses basic writing techniques and skills, the students are encouraged to start brainstorming. “Does anyone have any ideas for characters? Who should this story be about?”
Eager hands shoot up and the students squirm.
After deciding that the story will be about a zombie dog residing on Jupiter, Jeni expertly directs the discussion for the next hour as the story starts to come together. Having never witnessed a field trip in action, I am completely absorbed and impressed. Everyone is engaged and respectful, clearly invested in the story they are creating on the screen above.
Once a majority of the story is done, the volunteers quickly get to work printing copies of the text and binding books. Each student now receives their own copy of the partially-written story, and the next half hour is devoted to completing the story and writing their author bio below their freshly-printed picture. The students are filled with total joy upon seeing their name and photograph on something as important as a book. Some are bashful and shy while others run up to their teachers and shout, “I’m famous!” It is these moments of unfiltered excitement that make me so proud to be a part of such a wonderful organization that is so clearly passionate and supportive of its students. Because of the time each staff member and volunteer spends within this building and within the walls of the classrooms across the city, a student finds a new way to share their voice and find their story.
After the books are compiled and the students wrap up their work with the volunteers, they file out in the same manner they appeared. 826CHI is calm once again, and our grumbling stomachs remind us that it’s lunchtime. Everyone relishes the hush that falls over the room—but it’s only three hours until the after-school tutoring students arrive, and it starts all over again.
To learn more about 826CHI and all it does, please visit their website.
Julia Ventola is a web editor and copywriter based in Chicago. In her spare time, she works with the talented student writers at 826 CHI and guest blogs for Chicago Ideas Week. She also works as a freelance photographer; you can view her photographs online. Julia tweets about all-things publishing and new media at @juliaventola.