Have you ever taken a walk around your neighborhood, passed by a store, and thought that there must be more to it than meets the eye? That perhaps it’s not quite what it appears? No? Not really? Alright, I have to confess that’s not happened to me, either, but that is the case with one store. The Boring Store. What, precisely, is The Boring Store you ask? Why, it’s a undercover secret agent supply store of course! What did you think it was with a name like that? But beyond that -- and this is super-secret, so you can’t tell anyone -- it houses 826 Chicago ( www.826chi.org), a non-profit writing and tutoring center for kids ages 6 to 18. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Patrick Shaffner, Outreach Director at 826 Chicago, in which they discussed how the center came about, the programs they offer (and how to enroll a student in one of them), upcoming events, how you can volunteer or donate to help support the organization, The Boring Store, and more.
For those who have not heard of your organization before, how would you describe it? How did it come to be? What is its mission?
We are a creative writing and tutoring center for students in Chicago, a place where they can come in and work one-on-one with some amazing writers, artists, and geniuses in their own right, in order to explore each student’s creative voice and, depending on their program, also to get their homework done and done well.
So, that’s sort of our mission. We opened in 2005, and last year we worked with about 4,000 different students, primarily from the Chicago Public School system. Students come to our center in Wicker Park to work on their new books, and then leave with a copy of their published work. We also go into the schools to alleviate the craziness that a teacher faces when there is one teacher, 40 students. Each one of those students has their own unique voice. It takes a lot of time for that one teacher to make the rounds and give each student the attention that they would like. After school we become a tutoring emporium, and we’ll pair a student up with a volunteer, so that they are able to accomplish their homework for that day.
I think that’s great -- particularly the in-school program. I went to a public school for three of the four years I was in high school, and there certainly is a need for that additional support, based on what I’ve seen.
That’s why we do what we do, and it’s such a great thing. There’s power in the students’ voices and they haven’t recognized that power yet. We’re hoping that we can tip them off to it. We go into the classroom and show them, from an outsider’s perspective -- aside from their teacher, aside from their parents -- there are lots of other people who care about these students, who care about what they’re doing with their lives, and the stories that they have to tell.
I know that 826 Chicago offers a bunch of different programs. What sorts of programs do you
primarily offer, and what age range would they be geared toward? When do they take place?
The age range for all of these programs is roughly 6 to 18 years old. Three times a week, here at the center, a classroom is bussed in. A group of 20 to 40 kids comes in and they’re charged with creating one original story. We usually pair up a Chicago Public School teacher in order for them to bring the whole class in here. We work with them to do that thing they’ve already been working on in the classroom, with regards to writing or storymaking, and push it a little forward so that when they leave here they can continue on. You know, ‘We already wrote that story, let’s keep it going,’ that sort of idea.
One of the hallmarks of our programming -- what we really strive to do is get the students words on paper, get them from their imaginations to a thing that can be communicated with, a book. These field trips then result in the publication of a book that we do in-house. By the time they leave, they get to leave with that book in their hands. Our workshops range from memoir writing to just crazy storymaking to cutting out pictures from National Geographic and weaving the pictures through a new story.
We also do in-school programs. A teacher will be like ‘I’m doing a poetry unit. It would be good if I could have some more eyes on these papers,’ and we’ll come into the classroom. We also go into the classrooms on our own. We’re looking to publish a professionally-bound book, and we want to get a lot of these voices in there, we go into the classroom with a lesson plan and lead the kids through it. With the after-school programs we do homework. Any student can show up. It’s on a drop-in basis. We’re centrally located within a mile radius of 16 different schools, so we draw from them, but we’ve also had students take public transportation down here.
Then, on the evenings and weekends we do our workshops. We’ll bring in local writers, artists, people that are passionate about something that might not necessarily be tied in with writing. They come in and do a workshop where, in fact, they do tie it into writing. For example, we had some folks from a very nice chocolate factory come in to the center. They’ll teach the students all about chocolate. ‘Chocolate comes from such-and-such country,’ and ‘If you were visiting that country, what would you do?’
It’s the same with Lego. ‘Hey students, make this cool building out of Lego.’ They'll make a cool structure out of Lego. Then it’s ‘Tell me a story. Who lives inside the building?’ We’re able to draw students in, get them interested. Sometimes writing is not at the top of the list of things kids love to do. We try to look for ways to unleash their voices.
It’s that idea of making writing more accessible. Our space is painted green and yellow and orange. It’s a totally different environment than the light of some fluorescents in a dilapidated classroom, where the students are just like ‘Ugh, writing?! No!’ They'll go ‘Writing can be colorful?,’ that’s just something that slips by every now and then.
What if someone wants to enroll their child in a program? Is there some sort of enrollment process?
With the workshop programs, we’ll take any students who sign up with us. We do all of the registrations through our website. For the after-school program, it’s all pretty much done on a drop-in basis, once a child’s parents have attended the orientations. It’s not an immediate thing where a kid gets dropped off one day. We make sure the whole family is with us on what we’re trying to do, there are a few parent orientations that must be attended, and then the student can take part in the program. Again, it’s open to all, and all of that is on our site. If someone doesn’t have access to the Internet, we’re happy to accommodate them here at the center. When it comes to the in-schools and the field trips, they’re really arranged with the teachers themselves.
And if someone wants to help, either by donating or by volunteering their time, how do they go about doing so?
All of our volunteering applications, information on orientations for that, it’s all through our website right now. If they have any specific questions, they can certainly contact me at
[email protected] . We just relaunched our site last summer, so we tried to make it as intuitive as possible.
We also have events throughout the year, to keep the awareness up and keep the money for the programs coming in for the students. All the programs are free. Among these are our big annual dance that used to have a prom theme. This year we’ve bumped it up out of prom season, so it’s
going to be a sock hop. Again, these are for our volunteers and the older community, as alcohol
is involved. Last year was Prom Hanks, where you could dress up as a person from a Tom Hanks movie. Tom Hanks even got wind of it and donated some stuff. It was really fun. In the fall
we had our ‘Scrabble for Cheaters’ tournament. There are all sorts of fun opportunities to
get out there and meet some folks who think that education is a pretty important thing, and want to have some fun with it too.
AD: And then of course there's The Boring Store. Tell me a little more about that.
The whole lore of the store follows from 826 Valencia. When they were opening up, their landlord said that they are zoned for commercial business. They had to sell something to be in compliance with city code. So, they said ‘Fine, we’ll sell pirate supplies.’ That same method
was applied to each center as they opened up thereafter. Our store generates revenue for the space. It also is this great community outreach tool.
In our shop we sell the things that spies need on their missions, but we also keep an eye on what a spy would need in their home life. It’s our feeling that a spy, when at home, still wants to be surrounded by deceptive things. The notepad on their desk will not look like a notepad. It will perhaps be disguised as a pear or an apple. The pencil that they’re writing with won’t actually
be a pencil. If you look at it very closely, it’s a pen, but it’s made of wood and has an eraser, and it looks just like a pencil.
And now for the most important question of all... What is your favorite item?
The kids’ books. Their latest book, I should say.
There are also rearview sunglasses, which have mirrors embedded in them. You can see behind you at all times, while also having sunglasses on. With them you’re protected not only from what’s behind you, but from the sun as well.
For additional information about 826 Chicago, visit their website, www.826chi.org. You can also access The Boring Store's website directly by visiting www.826chi.org/shop. Proceeds from the sales of products at The Boring Store benefit the non-profit. For those of you inclined to check out either the store or the writing and tutoring center in person, 826 Chicago is located at 1331 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Chicago. Their telephone number is 773-772-8108, or if you so choose, you can contact them via e-Mail: [email protected].
Photos: Gail Reich, Patrick Shaffner, Mara O'Brien, Sarah Ji & Zach Duffy