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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
Labels: 826LA, affordable housing, habitat for humanity of greater los angeles, los angeles non-profits, patrick diaz, volunteer opportunities