826LA is the Los Angeles branch of a national tutoring organization that nurtures the literary aspirations of inner-city schoolchildren who learn to dream big.
On a balmy evening last fall, 8-year-old Ryan Montez shuffled shyly to a lectern in the back of Skylight Books on Vermont Avenue and launched into a short story he wrote in 2006. In unadorned yet powerful prose, he told of a summer night’s party where he danced, fell in love with a girl and witnessed a shoot-out that claimed his cousin’s life. This was Montez’s first outing as a published author. His story is in The Elotes Man Will Soon Be Gone, a compilation of personal narratives penned by students of John Marshall High School in Los Feliz, where he is now a senior. The small audience that attended the reading included his English teacher, Jane Patterson, who beamed from the sidelines and discreetly brushed away tears.
Like many of his classmates, Montez is the son of first-generation Latino immigrants. In his Eastside neighborhood, parents struggle to give their offspring access to an education that will enable them to rise to a station higher than their own. The fact that Montez was able to find his writer’s voice and get published in a book now sold on Amazon.com is a small miracle. And it had a lot to do with the guidance he received from 826LA — the local branch of a national tutoring organization devoted to nurturing the literary aspirations of inner-city schoolchildren.
The 9-year-old enterprise, staffed entirely by volunteers, is the brainchild of contempo-lit darling Dave Eggers. With proceeds from his best seller, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Eggers turned a San Francisco storefront into a hub where volunteers offered after-school homework help to disadvantaged students. Regional offshoots soon mushroomed in cities like New York, Chicago and Seattle. There are now eight outposts nationwide, including two Los Angeles chapters, located in Venice and Echo Park.
The project expanded to include writing workshops where children get to flex their creative muscles: On the popular weekly “Storytelling & Bookmaking” field trips, for example, students huddle together with a volunteer team of storytellers, illustrators and typists to concoct a book prototype for Mr. Barnacle, the fictitious publisher behind the equally fictitious imprint Barnacle Books.
Marie Weiss, a screenwriter living in Beverly Hills, has been tutoring at the Venice chapter for several years. “I lucked into the program after meeting a couple of young, enthusiastic volunteers at, believe it or not, the home of Paris Hilton’s parents,” she says. “They spoke so glowingly of 826LA, I simply had to join up. My first experience was on one of those Barnacle Books field trips,” she recalls. “I was thrown right into the fire, and had to learn to use a stylus to create illustrations as described by the children. In the space of three hours, I saw a third-grade class publish a book about a two-headed frog and discover that they were writers. Magic!”
Volunteers also shuttle to local schools to assist public-school teachers like Patterson — who started a creative-writing seminar at John Marshall High School in 2006, but then found herself overwhelmed and unable to provide one-on-one attention to the 40 or so students who had signed up. After reaching out to 826LA, she says that over a dozen volunteers materialized each week and carefully coached her charges through the writing process. “I couldn’t believe my good fortune,” she says. “It gave me this sense of being in a community.” The 200-strong group of locals on the current volunteer roster includes Ph.D. students, teachers and screenwriters, as well as retirees and bartenders.
“As a Chicana, I felt that it was extremely important to work with kids from a similar sociocultural background and demonstrate to them that they can go to college,” says Erica Flores, a 28-year-old 826LA volunteer and former pre-school teacher who lives in Hollywood. “I moved out to Los Angeles for grad school and didn’t feel much of a connection to the city until I began tutoring.”
J. Ryan Stradal, a 33-year-old Venice-based writer and producer who became involved with 826LA in 2005, also credits the program for deepening his relationship with the city at large. “Most of us seem to live within pre-established comfort zones,” he says. “It’s been splendid to step out of mine and into someone else’s a few times a week.” He also found the experience unexpectedly therapeutic: “I may have helped students get through English class or score a little better on the SAT, but they got me through the toughest stretch of my life,” he confesses. “When I started working with the kids, my mother was dying of cancer. I was in a failing relationship and working out of the house as a freelance writer. I needed a constructive diversion. What I got ended up being no less than life-changing.”
An emphasis on project-based activities that creatively engage students distinguishes 826LA from other enterprises of its kind. The tutoring centers are designed to tickle the students’ imagination: The Echo Park location, which opened in January of last year, is camouflaged behind a whimsical storefront dubbed The Time Travel Mart. This leads into a high-ceilinged space with exposed brick walls and Victorian wallpaper, where rafters-high bookshelves and well-worn velvet couches entice students to plunk themselves down with a book after completing their homework.
It was the “Make learning fun!” manifesto that drew Cindy Guidry to enlist. “I wanted to share my love of writing, which had always been such a joy and escape for me, and I knew I wanted to work with kids. It was the humor and playfulness, so brilliantly intertwined with education at 826LA, that convinced me it was the place for me.” Guidry, who organized a short-film camp for students last summer and taught a writing workshop on blending fact and fiction, describes it as “the most important and personally meaningful thing I’ve ever done. And on top of that, it’s been just plain fun!”
826LA is a volunteer-staffed organization that offers free after-school tutoring, field trips and creative-writing workshops for students aged 6 to 18 — as well as in-classroom assistance for their teachers. To learn more about the myriad ways you can help, visit 826LA.org or attend one of the monthly new-volunteer orientation sessions.
826LA EAST, 1714 W. Sunset Blvd., Echo Park; (213) 413-3388. 826LA WEST, 685 Venice Blvd., Venice; (310) 305-8418
Singular magazine is hosting a fundraiser for 826LA on September 29, 2012, from 7-10 pm at the Mr Musichead gallery in Hollywood.
Tickets for the event are $20 if purchased in advance, $30 at the door, and include an open wine bar, appetizers, complimentary bottles of Virgil’s Root Beer and Reed’s Ginger Beer, delicious Drunken Udder gourmet alcohol-infused ice cream, and drink vouchers for margaritas at the Pink Taco on Sunset Blvd. after-party.
Click here to purchase your tickets: http://psychedelic-60s-party.eventbrite.com/