826 LA promotes creativity in young minds

Children arrive at the blue, art-deco style building from all over the region. Some take the bus from miles away. Others are dropped off by their parents from across town. Many walk directly from their nearby schools. These children are eagerly entering the Venice location of 826LA, a non-profit organization that provides a multitude of services to youths ranging from age six to 18-year-old high school seniors.

This free program encourages students to tap into their creative sides. In addition to providing tutoring services, 826LA houses classrooms of students—some even from as far as Arizona—to go on field trips, take screenwriting lessons, and join various creative writing groups such as storytelling and book-making.

826LA, originally called 826 Valencia, was created by author Dave Eggers and educator Ninive Calegari in the Mission District of San Francisco in 2002. Eggers and Calegari became aware of the need for students to receive one-on-one help with homework and creative writing.

“There’s writing throughout everything that we do,” says Lauren Humphrey, a Santa Monica College student involved with volunteer outreach. “[Programs] like this tend to only be available to those who can afford it. But we want everyone to fall in love with creative writing.”

Humphrey says that although the program is funded by grants and private donations, the backbone is the volunteers.

“We try to have at least 10 volunteers for every tutoring session,” says Humphrey. “If we didn’t have volunteers, we couldn’t do any of this.”

Kelley Lonergan, a long-time volunteer, describes the atmosphere as both fun and rewarding.

“I see the kids grow both physically and academically,” says Lonergan. “I get to be kind of like a kid again. It really brightens my day.”

The children enjoy coming to 826LA for tutoring as much as the volunteers enjoy providing it.

“I was getting mostly C’s and D’s and no homework help,” says Kimberly Velasquez, a 14-year-old Venice High School student who began receiving tutoring help three years ago. “Now I’m getting A’s and B’s. I love coming here and expressing myself through writing.”

Velasquez’s half sister, nine-year-old Citlali Rodriguez, agrees that the environment is conducive to learning.

“It’s fun to have what I write be put into a book and read aloud in front of people,” Rodriguez says. “I have made friends with the volunteers here. Lauren [Humphrey] is nice and fun.”

Volunteers and students are not the only involved members of 826LA. Some big names have contributed to the organization. Judd Apatow belongs to the program’s Advisory Board, along with J.J. Abrams and Fiona Apple.

Apatow hosted a benefit in June, with all proceeds going to the program. The benefit included musical and comedy acts such as Paul Reubens, Peter Frampton, Ray Romano, and Bob Newhart.

826LA in Venice is one of two Los Angeles locations, with another facility in Echo Park. The organization also has locations in six other cities, including Boston, Chicago, Washington, D.C., New York City, Seattle, and the original 826 Valencia in San Francisco.

With hopes to expand to even more cities, 826LA recognizes its unique position in promoting positive influences to students from all walks of life.

“You’re not just a tutor, or someone who helps with homework,” says Humphrey. “You’re being a positive example of someone who cares about education. This has affected kids from other cities and states. This is something that’s long lasting.”