Community Building in L.A.: 826LA, A Nonprofit Writing/Tutoring Center

Guest Blog Post by Patrick Diaz, Habitat for Humanity of Greater Los Angeles volunteer

Amidst a stretch of local storefronts that line Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park, nestled among grocery stores, pawn shops, and bargain vendors, a caveman is shaking hands with a robot.

Upon entering the 826LA Time Travel Mart, the glass facade of which is graced by the caveman/robot diorama to its left and, to its right, a cityscape assembled by chunky blocks of wood, the eccentric market ruse gets even deeper, curiouser and curiouser. Robot milk. A bar of soap purportedly from the Soviet era ("Water optional" is stated in the directions). Mr. Barnacle's Mustache Wax.

The slick graphic design of the products' packaging itself, with the playfully deadpan elegance of their faux vintage or futuristic lettering and labeling, adds another layer of plausible detail to the carefully constructed and immersive fantasy that is both whimsical and sophisticated. 826LA's understanding that typeface is such a crucial strata of graphic design as experience is what makes this nonprofit such a unique volunteer adventure in tutoring and writing instruction.

That care and thoughtfulness in design carries over to the slender books that cram the brackets of the squat wire display rack on the register counter, and it is these books that are ultimately what 826LA is all about. They are the intersection of collaboration between the students and the volunteer tutors, and the celebration of what inspired brews of prose and poetry that the students have concocted.

A bit of backstory to 826LA. There are two branches, one in Echo Park and one in Mar Vista. It is the Los Angeles chapter of 826 National, a countrywide nonprofit co-founded by educator Nínive Calegari and Dave Eggers, author of such works as A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and What Is The What; he is also the founder of the publishing house McSweeney's. 826 offers tutoring and writing instruction--and every other form of creative expression--to students from ages six to eighteen.

It was first started in San Francisco in 2002, at 826 Valencia Street--hence the number--and expanded to six additional chapters, in Seattle, Chicago, Ann Arbor, Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C. Each chapter has a uniquely themed storefront; for instance, 826 Valencia has a Pirate Supply Store, while 826CHI in Chicago has The Boring Store which, according to 826 National's website, "sells nothing of interest and is certainly not an outlet for spy equipment." Sales from the retail front directly fund 826's writing programs.

A nondescript door in The Time Travel Mart leads to the true heart of the Echo Park branch of 826LA, a dramatic transition from the cool blue, cramped space of the retail front to the expansive, warmly lit interior that is the writing lab. A single word hangs on the brick wall to your left: appropriately enough, "WORD". Square and rectangular tables and brushed aluminum chairs are spread across the carpeted space, with a darkened library in the back. A second floor that overlooks the lab serves as the office space for the staff.

Like the generous piling of bricks that sweeps all the way up to the main room's high, cavernous ceiling, the tutoring center abounds with words, words that make up a single haiku, a short story, or a playfully bad review of a staged visit to a hopelessly bad restaurant (with volunteers acting as the surly staff).

The center is like a word garden, blossoming with words that pack to fullness its abundant shelves of "chapbooks" collecting students' writings; picture frames that house a single haiku; corkboards pinned haphazardly with free-spirited illustrations. Even a cursory glance through one of the beautifully published chapbooks, with writings set in elegant typeface and fronted by unique-as-a-snowflake cover illustrations, reveals a care and tenderness in graphic design to celebrate the collective prose and poetry, even if it's just a single sentence written by a student.

Field Trips to 826LA
826LA offers numerous field trips to visiting classes, which reveals its quirky and inspired but ingeniously structured approach to engaging students in storytelling.

One such project is the Storytelling and Bookmaking Field Trip; I had the honor to volunteer as illustrator for one at the Mar Vista branch, most notable because it was the last Field Trip hosting role for Danny Hom, the Director of Operations and Communications Manager for 826LA. After six years working at 826LA, he was moving on to work for the Los Angeles Fund for Public Education, which creates partnerships in the private sector to help the LAUSD school system.

A class visits 826LA, which serves as the headquarters for a fictional publishing house called Barnacle & Barnacle. No one sees Mr. or Mrs. Barnacle, but the class is told that Mr. Barnacle is a reclusive figure, irritable, egomaniacal, and capricious, prone to angry outbursts because his company has been losing money. It hasn't won the prestigious "Pubby" award since 1929 (look up at the second floor office window and you'll see it).

The host (played by Danny) is an employee of Barnacle & Barnacle and teaches the class about publishing and the principles of storytelling, until he is interrupted by the angry voice of Mr. Barnacle over the intercom (played by one of the more histrionic volunteers). He berates the host because his last manuscript submission (about a boy wizard named Gary Potter) was completely unoriginal and he unceremoniously fires him, to the class' shock and dismay.

The host, desperate for his (or her) job back, begs Mr. Barnacle for another chance, and promises that he will have a number of books (depending on the number of students) submitted for his approval--in just under two hours. Mr. Barnacle relents, and the host makes a plea to the students to help him put together a wholly original story so that he can get his job back.

The host guides the students in creating characters, a set of circumstances, and a plot, and, as illustrator, I had to quickly create on the spot three key images inspired by the story, devoting roughly twenty minutes per illustration. One volunteer compiles all the details from the students on a white board. Another volunteer serves as editor and types the story the class is assembling, the text of which is projected onto a screen. Whenever the editor makes a (deliberate) mistake in grammar or spelling, the class has to clasp both hands together, point at the screen, and yell, "FIX IT!" Once the three pages of narrative are composed, which end on a cliffhanger, each student has to write his or her own original ending. Volunteers offer assistance to the students in writing their resolution to the narrative.

The narrative they created followed the life of Angel, a chubby, melancholic frog who lives inside a giant acorn, his prized possession being a bicycle his late girlfriend gave him as a gift. A wealthy cow comes to visit and offers him $50,000 for the bicycle. When Angel refuses her offer, it sets off a wild chain of events, the resolution of which each student must decide with his or her own literary description. As illustrator, the task of improvising a character design, settings, and key visual moments in the story was an exciting endeavor, well worth it for the collective awed response from the class when they finally saw the resulting images they inspired through their words and ideas.

Once all the endings and the three illustrations are collected, copies of the book are published in the upstairs office for each student, with his or her ending as the last page. An added touch of charm is that each student had his or her own photo taken when they first entered 826LA (and given writerly looking glasses to wear), which was affixed to the back cover of the book. Mr. Barnacle, thoroughly pleased with the students' literary verve, praises each one over the intercom before each student receives his or her copy of the book from the ghostly hand--the Hand of Doom--of a Barnacle & Barnacle employee who died long ago in a tragic accident. Needless to say, the host gets his job back.

The most inspiring sentiment of 826LA, in projects like the Storytelling/Bookmaking Field Trip, is that these publications are churned out with frenetic regularity, the byproduct of the wild, spontaneous imaginings and ideas of the children who regularly attend 826LA or visit it just once. One gets the feeling that, with its small but gutsy staff and devoted battery of volunteer tutors armed with a variety of knowledge and skills, it is a heroic endeavor to archive the endless products of the crackling restless creativity of children that charges the atmosphere of the tutoring center, even at the least active time of the day. Like the haiku about Superman housed lovingly in a picture frame in Echo Park's cavernous lab, it is as if a single piece of prose or poetry is pure gold and is not allowed to get away, and is to be joyously celebrated.

In School Projects

Another project 826LA offers is an in-school visit from tutors to help high school students craft their personal statements for their college applications, and these sessions can, admittedly, pull at your heartstrings when you hear stories of tragedy and adversity. The goal of the tutor is to find the "gem" of the student's story. The fact that, in the course of a single hour and to a complete stranger, students will readily open up to confess their inner pain and heartache attests to the reputation and level of trust 826LA has earned by the dedication of staff and tutors who are gifted with great communication skills.

This noble effort of engaging in thoughtful and heartfelt dialogue with students in the midst of shaping their own identity requires sensitivity that is rooted in compassion and empathy. Much like the process of drawing out raw materials from children to craft a story for the Bookmaking Field Trip, tutors must unearth the raw materials of the actual life experience of students to shape their ongoing narrative in a compelling and cohesive way for college admissions officials. While the ideas that recklessly burst forth in Bookmaking Field Trips are wildly spontaneous, silly, and outrageous, the experiences that tutors must carefully draw out from students can be deeply moving but also difficult to listen to.

In the few times I've volunteered as an in-school tutor, I've already come across personal narratives that immediately strike the heart. The gem of the story is already there and it is an intricate matter of culling as much detail to flesh out the skeleton of that story, then piecing together and streamlining the raw materials of experience--connecting the dots--into a precise, cohesive narrative suitable for the college application essay. A few students have told me they never saw their personal story in so unified a way after I connected all their disparate experiences into that "gem", like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. To structure the flow of dialogue over the course of an hour, 826LA provides the tutor with comprehensive training documents, with series of questions in set time frames, for the sole purpose of finding and polishing the singular gem that is the student's story.

When volunteers encounter stories that are of a very sensitive nature, there is a directed set of protocols and an extensive support system set in place by 826LA and the school; the volunteers share any sensitive information with 826LA staff, who then counsel with the school staff on the next steps.

The most poignant experience I've had was hearing a student's story of experiencing domestic violence but having lofty aspirations to become a filmmaker--as well as a writer and fight choreographer. He was very timid and shy, his eyes mostly looking down, flickering and tentative in their movements, and only looking up very briefly at me when answering my questions. The notes on the questionnaire written by the previous tutor showed that he struggled with low self-esteem issues because of the violence he experienced at home. The tutor wrote that the student's mother was his role model and the sole source of his sense of right and wrong.

When I asked him what his proudest accomplishment was so far, he immediately answered that it was his ability to draw. His favorite subject to draw was monsters, and he described to me a well developed feature film narrative he had crafted, its archetypes drawn from the western and the martial arts genres, about a lonely, aimlessly wandering monster who arrives at a desert town ruled by a corrupt mayor.

His favorite films were Robocop and The Toxic Avenger. The student even knew the names of the films' directors, and I had a brimming moment of pride (and still do) when I remembered that the director of Robocop was Paul Verhoeven, which allowed me to further connect with him. When I asked if he related to these characters because they were broken, tragic figures who yet had, buried deep in their core under those thick, scarred layers of mutated flesh or cold, cybernetic hardware, a heroic and noble heart, he nodded and quietly said yes. I confessed to him that I myself related strongly to Batman, that he is my favorite and most beloved comic book character, because, like me, Bruce Wayne suffered a traumatic childhood tragedy; he witnessed the violent deaths of his parents. I confessed that my upbringing also had violence and turbulence and that I also saw my mother, although deceased, as the moral anchor throughout my entire life. I confessed that, like Bruce Wayne, I chose to use my talents and resources to help make the world a better place. In my case, I channeled my abilities and resources towards lifelong humanitarian work, for causes like 826LA and Habitat for Humanity.

I praised him thoroughly for being so creative at so young an age, for being able to readily tap into his artistic ability to express his pain, for already having a noble but wounded heart, and for having so lofty a dream as becoming a filmmaker. While he was taking the initiative to move forward (like joining a film club in high school and requesting an 826LA tutor to help write his essay), I also acknowledged that his shyness and low self-esteem were personal obstacles he must overcome with time and steely determination in order to become a film director, which is a very demanding role, socially, financially, and creatively, and requires an inordinate amount of confidence.

In one single hour I listened to the moving story of a boy fleeing with his mother for safety from an abusive father, struggling with identity weighed down by low self-esteem, yet aiming high to become an artist in the most epic way. I saw myself in his tragic upbringing, in his being anchored by a loving mother who was his sole inspiration and moral compass, and in his palpably difficult effort to elevate his confidence and achieve his greatest self.

And in the course of that single hour, I realized how powerful an influence 826LA has on the community of Los Angeles, and how essential a role it, and the other 826 affiliates, has in the future spiritual growth of their respective cities. 826LA nurtures lifelong creative wiliness, playfulness, silliness, as well as confidence, compassion, and nobility, by helping shape, and oftentimes soothe, the evolving minds of the young by encouraging them to discover the infinite power they can draw from the written word alone. 826LA reminds us of the obvious but easily overlooked fact that language, beautifully and effectively expressed, shines its power onto the world like a healing inspiring light, and, more importantly, back onto the spirits of those who wield it.

What Habitat for Humanity does for Greater Los Angeles through the housing aspect of community building, 826LA does, as another arm of that endeavor, by spurring growth through sophisticated and innovative approaches to education. It partners with schools for in-school and field trip projects, and taps into the wealth and variety of talented people in Los Angeles who volunteer their time, skills, and hearts to tutor. While Habitat builds the homes, 826LA builds the minds, and together they build the future, and I love being part of both organizations.

I want to close this article with a poem, author unknown. In Echo Park, there is a single haiku in an amply bordered picture frame. It is the first piece of writing that I saw when I first entered the 826LA lab. It is titled, "Superman". It reads:

He likes to rescue
Superman battles bad guys
He likes to eat cats


Final Words: An interview with Danny Hom, former Director of Operations and Communications Manager for 826LA

Q: What is your story, and how did you get involved with 826LA?

I am from Southern California and went to UCLA. When I was a writing student there, I was anxious to find something that would get me out into the Los Angeles community, and when I heard about 826LA opening up in Los Angeles through the Internet, I signed up as a volunteer. One of the things that I loved the most about 826LA is that every child's ideas were treated as important here. That meant a lot to me at that time in my life and led me to want to get more deeply involved. During my last two years of college, I was at 826LA as a volunteer several times a week, and then, when I graduated in 2007, I was extraordinarily lucky that an opening happened to come up in our organization, and I was hired in as a Programs Assistant. Today, I work with a wide variety of student programs at 826LA, although I focus a lot on our field trips, and I help people learn more about what 826LA is doing, and it's good work.

Q: What's your most memorable experience?

I think that every field trip for me is a unique and special experience because every book comes together in a different way and contains different themes. But something that matters a lot to me, and it happens a couple of times a year, is when teachers really give me extremely positive feedback about the impact this has had on their kids. I have enormous respect for teachers because of how hard they work to help our youth and sometimes the extraordinary circumstances that are challenging them, but I've heard many times from teachers that this field trip that we run at 826LA is the best field trip that they've ever been able to provide their school. In fact, one of the teachers from Westminster Elementary said recently that this field trip should be mandatory for the public school system! I don't know that that would be possible for everybody, but I really love to hear that coming straight from someone who cares a lot about kids. That teacher also said we were better than the zoo, and that means a lot to me, too.

Q: What do you want to share with people from Habitat, or with people who are discovering 826LA for the first time?

I think that I have had an extraordinary privilege to work at an organization like 826LA because I've met incredible people here. The volunteers that I've had a chance to partner with are such phenomenal people, and, as I mentioned, the teachers and students are great. Something that I think people should consider when they're planning to volunteer is what kind of impact they can have on the community. I think that, for us in Los Angeles, particularly, it's easy to live in this city and maybe work our nine to five job, maybe have some film job or an entertainment industry position, but you can go for years and years without knowing anybody who has a family in your neighborhood, who goes to public school in the area where you live, unless there are organizations like 826LA that will help you meet the people who are right around your block, who go to school right down the street. I think this organization bridges those kind of gaps that are particularly challenging in our city. It makes us more connected, and that means a lot to me, especially. I hope that other people get the same satisfaction out of helping youth, and helping families that 826LA has been able to provide.

Q: Where are you going to next?

After an extremely satisfying run at 826LA, where I've been able to do so many different things, I'm going to be starting a position at the Los Angeles Fund for Public Education in July. The LA Fund for Public Education partners and creates private sector partnerships to help the LAUSD school system. All the things that I've learned about our public school system through 826LA have made public schooling matter a lot to me, so I'm excited to dedicate myself to this new work.


Thanks to the staff and volunteers of 826LA, especially to Danny Hom, who took the time to sit down for an interview for this article, as well as Marisa Gedney, Kristin Lorey, Julius Diaz Panoriñgan, and Lauren Humphrey for being supportive of my contributions to this wonderful nonprofit.

Related Posts:
Dr. Teofista Viñas, My Mother, My Inspiration: Why I Build
Habitat Site 63, L.A. To NOLA: My Third Visit, RHINO, and Joseph Massenburg
My Favorite Site in the U.S.

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