More than five years ago, in a colorful classroom at Michael Faraday Elementary School in a harsh area on Chicago's West Side, three women and their three dogs were helping a group of second--graders learn to read. They were volunteers for an organization called Sit Stay Read! which for a decade has been bringing the joys of reading to little kids, using dogs as a tool.
MaryEllen Schneider is SSR's executive director and co-founder, and she said, “Reading aloud is a critical component of early childhood literacy, but reading in front of classmates can be an ordeal. We provide the children with listeners who are attentive and nonjudgmental, our dogs.”
Watching this, it was impossible not to feel happy and hopeful and not to admire the special and sometimes complex things that motivate people to volunteer their time, sometimes their money and often their hearts to try to do something for others.
You can get the same feeling walking into Open Books, that word playground (i.e. bookstore) at 213 W. Institute Place. It is filled with more than 50,000 books, almost all of them used and all of them donated in a place staffed mostly by volunteers.
“Everyone who volunteers, whether in our literacy programs with children all over the city or in the store, cares passionately about literacy and has a love of words and reading,” says Kevin Elliott, Open Books' manager, a paid position. “Beyond that, many are also looking for a community of like-minded people, and many have found a place where they can indulge in their passion, meet new friends and make a difference in our students' lives.”
And now, on to 826CHI, part of the nationwide nonprofit organization that helps 6- to 18-year-olds develop writing skills through, among many things, field trips, workshops, tutoring and publishing. The manner in which all of this is done is arrestingly playful and engagingly collaborative. It works.
“Just as we do for students, we take a light-hearted approach to a very serious subject for our volunteers too,” says Barry Benson, who became executive director of 826CHI nearly a year ago, having spent most of his career in Chicago's nonprofit literacy world. “I like to think of everything we do as a lively undertaking.”
Born in 2002 in San Francisco and taking its name, 826 National, from its address, 826 Valencia St., the organization now has oases in Ann Arbor, Mich.; Boston; Los Angeles; New York; Seattle; Washington, D.C.; and Chicago.
This network was co-founded by educator Ninive Calegari and Dave Eggers, author of “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” (and esteemed later books) and founder of the publishing house McSweeney's.
Not incidentally, Eggers was a student, along with actor Vince Vaughn, in the Lake Forest High School English class taught by Peter Ferry. (After retiring, Ferry wrote the novel “Travel Writing,” which Eggers called “totally captivating and page-turning.”)
826CHI maintains a network of more than 2,500 volunteers here, with more than 400 actively involved in every program offered. Many of them work in the most visible manifestation of the organization: the Boring Store in Wicker Park, which offers all manner of playful and important items, including many of the books that grew from 826CHI workshops. One of the most recent is “The Noise Felt Human,” which contains the written work of 70 students answering such questions as “Who are you?” or “What's been the most powerful experience in your life?”
“On a personal and philosophical level, literacy is the thing that makes the most sense to me,” Benson says. “That is the beginning, the foundation of any person's life and success.”
826CHI's signature annual event is PROM, which Benson describes as “a sophisti-nerdy version of the one we all experienced, or didn't, back in high school.” A past PROM theme was Prom Hanks, with costumes based on Tom Hanks movies.
“This year's theme is Promic-con, a tribute to comics,” Benson said. “In addition to being a fundraiser, it's mostly a means of honoring the amazing volunteers who make our free programs happen every day.”
It takes place from 8 p.m. to midnight Saturday at the School of the Art Institute Ballroom, 112 S. Michigan Ave. Sure to be there is Kara Thorstenson, who has volunteered with 826CHI since shortly after it opened in October 2005.
She says: “Because I was teaching full time during the day, I volunteered on evenings and weekends, teaching workshops about things like reporting on alien invasions and creating a secret agent dossier. I also staffed the Boring Store. … I got involved in planning events, too, because that work was primarily done on nights and weekends. I've been involved in some way with each prom we've thrown since 2009. I've done everything from work the door to book the band.”
So, what's in it for her?
“826 has provided me with some of the best friends a girl could ask for,” she said, “events and parties both related to and outside of the 826 fundraising circuit, a gig as the annual Christmas party emcee, and the consistent sense that I am doing some good in the world.”
Sit, Stay, Read: sitstayread.org
Open Books: open-books.org
Have at it.