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A Heartwarming Work of Staggering Generosity

Chicagoans open a chapter of the free writing and tutoring program founded by Dave Eggers.

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Last year, when she was in second grade, Kristie De Luna couldn't wait to do her homework. It was assigned for the whole week each Monday, and she'd come home and want to tear through it all. "I'd get tired," says her father, Gonzalo, "and have to persuade her to save some for later."

In third grade something changed. "It was boring" is all Kristie will say. Gonzalo and his wife, Janet, talked about getting their daughter a tutor, but most of the ones they found were too expensive, as much as $400 a month. Then a month ago a copy of Chicago Journal appeared on the family's front steps, and on the cover was a story about something called 826CHI. Gonzalo says he got pulled into reading it because it mentioned a store that sold "secret-agent supplies." The next paragraph mentioned free tutoring.

"I heard him gasp," says Kristie, who'd handed him the paper.

826CHI is one of the newest outposts in a growing network of nonprofit writing centers started in San Francisco by McSweeney's editor Dave Eggers and a bunch of like-minded peers. The first, 826 Valencia, named for its address, opened in 2002 in a Mission District space it shared with the McSweeney's office and a store that sold pirate supplies--eye patches, peg legs, lard. The center, which offers free after-school tutoring and a slew of innovative programs for both kids and adults, now serves 15,000 students, has more than 900 volunteers, and has spawned sister centers in Los Angeles, Brooklyn, Seattle, and Ann Arbor.

Chicago's center, open to kids 6 to 18, has been in the works since 2003, when executive director Leah Guenther, then a grad student in English lit at Northwestern, and a handful of other writers, teachers, and students met at one of Eggers's appearances. They put together an advisory board of local big shots--including Roger Ebert, Aleksandar Hemon, and Audrey Niffenegger--and started looking for money.

Guenther and Mara Fuller O'Brien, a former Chicago Public Schools teacher who became the education director in May, spent the past few months on what Guenther calls a "horrid real estate odyssey," prowling the city for the right space. They finally found it a couple months ago on a stubbornly ungentrified stretch of Milwaukee between Paulina and Wood.

At an open house last month several prospective volunteers wondered aloud why they'd set up shop in Wicker Park and not Pilsen, Uptown, or Logan Square, where the kids might be more in need of help. "We looked in Pilsen, and Logan Square, and Humboldt Park," says Guenther, "but the other sites, they've found that what works best is a place that has a mix of foot traffic, tutors living in the area, and schools in the area. Plus it needs to be close to public transportation. There were a lot of options that would have worked well, but we thought this was the one that would work the best." O'Brien adds that within a mile and a half there are 15,000 students--3,300 at Clemente and Wells high schools alone--and over 85 percent of them have been classified by the CPS as coming from low-income families.

O'Brien has spent much of the fall visiting the neighborhood schools, talking to teachers, and passing out information. She and Guenther also did the bulk of the rehab. In a few months the front room will house a spy-supply emporium called the Boring Store--selling disguises, eavesdropping devices, and, in Guenther's words, "things for your carrier pigeon." When the center opened its doors on October 24 the heat still wasn't turned on, but the back room was full of bright Ikea chairs and tables and new iMacs. A big projection screen/dry-erase board hung on one lime green wall.

In the past two months 826CHI has received more than 200 volunteer applications--many from people in the neighborhood--and amassed a mailing list three times as large. "It's just been overwhelming in the best possible way," says Guenther. "The people we have are so diverse agewise and skillwise that it's just really going to be a huge advantage for the students." She's quick to add that they're looking for more help, especially if you speak Spanish, are available during the daytime, or are willing to help with less immediately gratifying tasks such as fund-raising.

Guenther says they plan to offer not just drop-in tutoring but workshops on everything from SAT preparation to zine making to "writing for your pet." They'll also bring classes from local schools to the center, where the kids can write a story with a cliff-hanger ending as a group, then finish it on their own and take it home bound into a little book. "In talking to parents, I've been trying to emphasize that what we're offering is tutoring, but it's not all meant to be remedial," says O'Brien. "We're also just looking for kids who want an outlet for their creativity--to write a story or write a book, to do something beyond what they've got the time and attention to do in a school."

Eventually Guenther and O'Brien hope to publish an anthology of student writing, something the more established 826s have been doing for a while. In the meantime they'll be part of a simultaneous event: this Saturday all six writing centers will celebrate the release of an anthology of young adult fiction, Noisy Outlaws, Unfriendly Blobs, and Some Other Things . . ., published by McSweeney's Books. The Chicago event, hosted by board members Joe Meno and Anne Elizabeth Moore, will feature a magician and a contest to see who can write the best Lemony Snicket story: Snicket author Daniel Handler will make an appearance via satellite.

On November 3 Kristie De Luna--who hadn't missed a day at the center since it opened--vied with seventh-grader Lucas Gilbert for the attention of tutor James Flynn. A writer and filmmaker who last year graduated from college, then moved to Chicago, Flynn had read about 826 Valencia in Best American Nonrequired Reading, a series of anthologies edited by Eggers with help from 826 Valencia students.

On one side of the table Gilbert and Flynn, his water bottle emblazoned with Rat Patrol and Bike Winter stickers, huddled over Gilbert's math homework. Across the table De Luna worried over a short story she was writing about her two shih tzus and their puppies. The heat was finally on, and around the room seven more kids and at least as many adults bent their heads together, reading Spanish, untangling geometry problems, and learning about vowels. In a corner a volunteer took a screwdriver to a troublesome iMac.

Guenther says her biggest worry now is money. She and O'Brien, the only people drawing a salary, have gotten several grants and donations--including a mysterious contribution of $1,027 from the Web site Television Without Pity, which held an online auction where the center was named the beneficiary by an anonymous fan--but they still don't have as much as they'd hoped. Next Saturday they're hosting a fund-raising screening of the film As Smart as They Are, a documentary about a collaboration between McSweeney's Brooklyn and the band One Ring Zero, whose 2004 album (also titled As Smart as They Are) featured lyrics by such New York writers as Jonathan Ames and Rick Moody.

"There's only so much fund-raising you can do without anything to show people," Guenther says. "We just kind of had to take a leap of faith. I don't think it was completely comfortable for any of us, but I think it'll be better in the long run, because there's no more imagining what the program can be. We can show people what it is."

Noisy Outlaws: A Lemony Snicket Event

When: Sat 11/12, 2 PM

Where: 826CHI, 1331 N. Milwaukee

Price: Free

Info: 773-772-8108 or 826chi.org

As Smart as They Are: The Author Project

When: Sat 11/19, 7:30 PM

Where: Thorne Auditorium, Arthur Rubloff Building, 750 N. Lake Shore Dr.

Price: $9

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Merideth.

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