Writing Center lends a hand to young authors

  • Medill News Service
  • February 23, 2006 @ 6:00 AM
Operating behind an empty storefront in Wicker Park, one literary crew has been making Chicago just a little more creative -- one young, bright-eyed writer at a time.

826CHI, a nonprofit organization that provides free tutoring and creative writing workshops to area students, opened its doors in October. The Chicago branch is one of several 826 writing centers around the country offering after-school and in-class tutoring, storytelling and bookmaking classes, as well as field trips, to a steady stream of students ranging from 6 to 18 years old.

But despite the group's strong start, that empty space still lurks at the front of its Wicker Park headquarters -- a space they hope will soon be filled, after a fundraiser Thursday night.

"One of the quirkier aspects of the 826 centers is that they all have a retail space that raises money for the program," Executive Director Leah Guenther said. "It's just a good way to introduce the program into the community."

But this won't be just any old store.

"We're opening an undercover secret agent supply store," Guenther said. "It's a place where secret agents can keep their cover when they go into it, and of course, buy necessary supplies. Basically, the money we raise at this point is going to help us make this space exciting for the kids."

Guenther said the original center in San Francisco, named for its address at 826 Valencia, started the retail trend when the organization was informed by a landlord that it had to either vacate its retail-heavy location or start selling something.

The group opened a pirate-themed store and sold cracked eyeballs and peg-legs -- a move that actually drew baffled passers-by into the building and proved to be a major source of fundraising for 826 Valencia. The success of the pirate store prompted other 826 centers to open similarly quirky stores, the proceeds of which all go toward the organization.

Founded four years ago by a group that included writer Dave Eggers, whose best-seller "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" opens in Chicago's north suburbs, the popularity of the center has spread to the point that there are now six locations. In addition to San Francisco and Chicago, centers are also located in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle and Ann Arbor, Mich.

The Chicago center will sponsor a wine and dumplings tasting Thursday night at the center, with Chicago Tribune wine writer Bill Daley and food writer Monica Eng on hand to offer their recommendations. Admission is $20 and all proceeds will go to the center. For details, check the center's Web site, www.826CHI.org.

The retail space is one of the last additions to a program that has proved to be quite successful in Chicago. 826CHI volunteers tutor kids in all subjects after school; they sponsor field trips to the center three times a week; and they lead bookmaking workshops, the most popular program at 826CHI.

"We're booked up for those for a long time," Guenther said. "The kids write a book together. They become storytellers. They collectively create a story, and then we have it typed up and illustrated, and at the end of the day, they leave with their own book."

Guenther said eventually, 826CHI hopes to start publishing student writing.

Laura Pearson, an editor at Punk Planet magazine who has been volunteering at 826CHI since it opened, said she sees kids responding to the program.

"It's a great way to get kids going and thinking," Pearson said. "Especially the ones who've participated in the field trips or workshops, they really use those as a springboard for their own writing. They come up with great ideas."

Pearson said the creative approach to writing and learning can help the students in other areas as well.

"One day, a sixth-grade girl came in with science homework, and she was really worried because she said she was bad at science," Pearson said. "So we made up all these mnemonic devices, all these crazy things, to help her remember. We really spent a long time on it, and at the end she seemed so much more confident. Then she came in later and said she had gotten an A. It was a really cool moment."

Pearson said she hopes 826CHI fundraising campaigns prove successful, because she wants to continue volunteering.

"Every day there's something funny, interesting, challenging," she said. "It's always different. It's a great part of my week."