We spoke with Molly Walsh, the store manager at 826CHI, to learn more about this great organization. 826CHI is a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting students ages 6 to 18 with their creative and expository writing skills, and to helping teachers inspire their students to write. I imagine it as the place where cool creative kids become even cooler and more creative.
You can learn about their in-kind needs on their Zealous Good charity profile page.
What is the best thing about the work you do?
The best thing about working at 826 is getting to see the kids undergo a transformation, from totally fearing writing to getting excited to share their ideas, to having the confidence to put together a story on their own. Our programs, and our space, are designed to destigmatize something that is very intimidating to kids, and particularly scary to English language learners. It’s really thrilling to watch a classroom full of kids, for instance, during our Field Trips program in Storytelling and Bookmaking, applaud each other as each of their newly-bound books is approved and returned to them. The confidence these successes give the kids will trickle down through all areas of their scholastic growth; breaking down the barriers early just opens up this world of possibility for them.
It’s hard to talk about the value of our work in a quantifiable way, especially when it comes to Field Trips and Workshops. We work with thousands of students per year, some of whom we only see for a few hours at a time. Though they really do undergo a total shift in outlook during the few hours we see them, and taking home the book they’ve made in our space is visibly important to them, it’s not a thing that’s easily assessed in a clinical, numbers-oriented way. It makes funding a challenge.
826CHI is different in a lot of ways, but one of the most noticeable and fundamental is the built-in community of support. We have a huge volunteer base comprised of a diverse group of talented people, bringing a wide variety of skills to our students. Everyone from Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy to Michael Chabon to Molly Ringwald to Alex Kotlowitz has come out to support our work or provide direct service programming to the students. Because of the diversity of our volunteer base, we can offer workshops in poetry, music or food criticism, jingle-writing and advertising, fan-fiction, college essay writing, and journalism–and a lot more. It, again, really hits at that sense of the possibility in writing. By coming in to learn more about something the kids already love (say, for instance, music or food), they’re given a really easy entry point into writing as a tool for self-expression. It’s pretty special to see that.
One of the neatest things about 826CHI is that we’re part of a national network with sites in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Boston, Michigan, and Washington, D.C. Each space is a separate 501(c)(3) nonprofit, sharing best practices and research and programming, and each has a different them to their storefront, which is the entryway into the tutoring lab.
In Chicago, our storefront is a secret agent supply store called–shh, don’t tell–The Boring Store. It purports to sell boxes, twine, other useless objects. But really, our kids enter the imaginative programming space by way of a shop that deals in grappling hooks, invisible ink, vintage luggage, magnifying glasses–where there are footprints on the ceiling, drawers to open, and a very curious quantity of carrier pigeons throughout the space.
Visitors to other cities will find a robot repair shop (Michigan), a time traveler’s convenience store (LA), a pirate supply shop (San Francisco), and many more inspiring and imaginative oddities. Full rundown here: http://826national.org/
We recently received a huge donation of filing cabinets from an accountant’s firm out in the southwest suburbs. The donation will not only enable us to store the mountains of student work and the paperwork the goes along with the hundreds of volunteers we orient per year, some of the cabinets will be used in the spy supply shop where we’ll be repurposing them into unique, Cold War-inspired shelving units and interactive displays. We were thrilled to get the donation, which has potentially saved us thousands of dollars in furniture costs.