Barbra Dillon, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief: For those who may be unfamiliar, what can you tell us about the non-profit organization, 826LA, and what inspired this endeavor?
Joel Arquillos: 826LA is a nonprofit writing and tutoring organization. We work with volunteers from all over Los Angeles to help inspire youth to write and to help their teachers get their students excited about writing. We serve over 9,000 students a year with the support of thousands of volunteers. We have two centers: one in Echo Park and another in Mar Vista which are fronted by Time Travel Marts, and we also have a site inside of Manual Arts High School in South Los Angeles. We welcome classrooms and individual students to our labs for tutoring, writing support, workshops, and field trips. We also go to schools all throughout LAUSD to support the writing process in classrooms. We publish hundreds of books a year, many of which are made in less than three hours!
BD: 826LA houses chapters all across the United States. How many locations are currently in operation, and are opportunities available for interested individuals to begin their own chapters?
JA: 826LA is part of a network of nonprofits throughout the United States. We are all connected through our parent organization, 826 National. We have sites in seven other cities: Chicago, San Francisco, New York City, Detroit, Ann Arbor, Washington, D.C., and Boston. There are new chapters in development in Oakland, New Orleans, and Minneapolis. Every one of our cities could use more volunteer support. Please visit their sites for more information about how to do that.
BD: What can share about the individuals involved with 826LA and their efforts towards inspiring and developing young learners’ creative and expository writing skills?
JA: We have a staff of incredibly dedicated people who are passionate about writing, education, and helping those who have not been given adequate resources to excel. Our volunteer force is made up of similar individuals who bring a wide array of backgrounds and experiences to our students and our organization. We get folks from the ages of 18 to 92. Many are writers, but a lot are just folks who love to work with young people. We have students from local universities, retired teachers, lawyers, folks who work in tech, Hollywood, and the many industries that make up Los Angeles. We also get a lot of support from creative individuals who help us design our publications or even come up with fun ideas for events and the products in our stores.
BD: Residents in Los Angeles may have had the occasion to pass by the Time Travel Mart in either Echo Park or Mar Vista. How are these locations connected to 826LA?
JA: The original 826 (826 Valencia) was started in San Francisco by the author Dave Eggers and teacher Ninive Calegari. The site they rented was zoned for retail so they needed to have something to sell. While volunteers were getting the lab ready for students, someone mentioned that the rafters made the place look like the inside of a pirate ship. And that’s how the Pirate Store was born and became the entryway for 826 Valencia. Since then, each of our sister cities have opened their own shops: from superhero supplies at 826NYC, to robot repairs in Detroit, and to our very own Time Travel Mart(s) in Los Angeles. The Time Travel Mart(s) are basically convenience stores for time travelers who may need robot milk when traveling to the future or who miss the taste of mastodon meat—a product we carry in cans. But what we also have in our stores are the books that we publish by our students. All the funds we raise through our stores go back to help pay for the free writing support we provide.
BD: What are the biggest hurdles to providing writing education and one-on-one tutoring to Southern California’s youth?
JA: The biggest hurdle in Los Angeles—and not only for providing writing help—is traffic. I’m partly joking, but I’m also quite serious. Most of the students and some of the volunteers who help us live near or close to our two centers so travel is not as challenging for them. But the programs we run in schools across LA can become a hurdle for well-meaning volunteers who may not live close to a school we’re working with. As a result, we sometimes get fewer volunteers at some of our in-school projects, but somehow, we still make it work. We’re putting more emphasis on our recruitment and support of volunteers who are willing to travel to schools in South Los Angeles. There’s just so much need in that region and, sadly, schools that are harder to reach are those that need the most support. So, if there are volunteers out there who want to join our team to help us bring larger numbers of great adults into classrooms across Los Angeles, please sign up!
BD: How can other individuals get involved with the organization, and what are a few ways that community members can truly make a difference?
JA: The biggest need we have are for individuals willing to roll up their sleeves and support youth through one-on-one tutoring at our sites or at our schools. We especially need help during the school day and after school from 3-6 p.m. For those who may not feel like working on-on-one with kids is their thing, we could use help designing the many publications we create, help with our website and technology, as well as creative people who can design, layout books, and help us generate fun products for our Time Travel Marts. We have a volunteer project called the Creative Roundtable who are a group of copywriters, comedians, designers, and folks with marketing and social media expertise who help us keep our brand and messaging strong.
BD: Are there any other fundraising events or activities that you are currently working on that you would like to share with our readers?
JA: The next big event we’re working on is our big annual fundraiser called Tell Me a Story. Every year we have a very large event that helps us raise up to a third of our annual budget. It’s a big deal for us and requires a big effort from our board and development staff. Last year we teamed up with BJ Novak, one of our volunteers and a well-known writer and actor, who has an app called The List App. We asked celebrities like Keegan Michael-Key, Bob Odenkirk, Catherine Keener, Kristen Schaal, and others to read lists by our students as well as lists by writers and historical figures. This year we’re asking comedians to tell the audience a funny story. We’re about to announce the line up, so please do check our site for updates!
BD: Lastly, what would you like to tell readers who want to learn more about 826LA?
JA: We do have a lot of fun at 826LA, and we work hard to maintain a creative, safe, and inspiring environment for our students. But we also take writing very seriously and want to make sure we can provide our students with the help they need to tell their powerful stories. The majority of the students we help come from challenging environments. We offer them an opportunity to feel safe and inspired and to see themselves as the next generation of storytellers. So many of our kids do not see themselves or their lives portrayed in films or television. So, we hope they will take the tools they gain with us and help more people learn about the diversity of stories and cultures that exist in our country. And if they decide not to become writers, we hope they can develop the ability to express their ideas clearly and confidently in whatever they choose to do.
If you have a volunteer opportunity or an important cause that could use the assistance of a few geeks, please email the details to barbra (at) fanbasepress (dot) com.