Last fall, I started volunteering at 826 LA, also known as the Echo Park Time Travel Mart, and also known as a place I like to go dressed like Princess Leia. Going to work with a group I’ve admired for so long was a thrill—I’d written about 826 for Wired, ID, Fast Company and UnBeige—and now many of the people who work and volunteer there have also become great friends (thanks to their awesome events like the Craft Beer Fest and Echo Park Paddle Boat Regatta). Although my insane travel schedule lately has prevented me from getting over there as often as I like, during a pleasantly inert few months last fall, I got to work closely with an amazing group of students at Garfield High School in East LA, who have published their first book Sheep Can’t Fly (above, with beautiful cover artwork by Amy Martin).
Yes, these are the published authors of which I speak, moments before their first reading. Why, they were published authors before I was a published author! 826 was founded by another—now very famous—published author, Dave Eggers—whose book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius honestly steered me towards the very career I have today—so appropriately, 826 is focused on reading, writing, and publishing. The publishing is the important part, I think. For local students who come to the after-school homework tutoring sessions that happen at the Echo Park center, there is time set aside for creative writing pieces, and every season, the pieces are compiled into a book, complete with a book launch party and readings. Seeing these kids read their pieces, clutching their books, running their fingers over their words, signing each others’ copies, is a sight to behold. It’s obvious: They’re hooked.
In addition to the homework centers, 826 does extensive outreach into local schools, where tutors like me get to spend weeks working one-on-one with students on bigger projects. We worked with the students of Arlette Crosland’s class, who were tasked with writing their own Hero’s Journey, based on the monomyth in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces (a story arc you’ll start to see is present in most films but very obvious in Star Wars—see why I wanted to get involved?). This was a unique collaboration in that 826 worked with Homeboy Industries, a gang diversion program (and tasty cafe) in downtown LA run by Father Greg Boyle. Father Greg, above, in the world’s greatest office at the launch party, is a hero in his own right, and using his own powerful stories, he guided the students spiritually. They needed his strength when it got to the fifth and sixth drafts. Writing and re-writing, reading and re-reading, editing and re-editing for months, these teenagers each cranked out their stories, amazing adventures filled with love, regret, fear, forgiveness, triumph, agony, fairies, mass murderers, secret agents, pop stars, ghosts, and at least a dozen vampires—enough to fill 333 hefty pages.
This was the last stop for some of the students who were off to college, their resumes no doubt augmented by the fact that they were published authors at 18, and the students I saw that night were not the same ones who I met in the classroom that first day. Alexandra Jimenez, above to the left, who wrote an amazing Beatles-infused story “What About Paul?” with her signature dry wit told me in a rare moment of seriousness that this night might even be a slightly bigger deal than prom. And to the right is Rafael Cruz, a quiet, unassuming student who wrote an incredibly moving saga of redemption set in ancient Rome. As he read the poem that opens the book, I saw him transform from a shy young man who could barely read his drafts loud enough to hear in the classroom, to a lyrical master, reciting from memory, holding the room in rapt attention. A hero’s journey, indeed.
The reason I’m telling you all this today is because it’s 8/26, officially 826 Day. And to support this incredible institution, you can do three things:
1. Send a check in a sealed envelope to 1714 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90026. Please make the check out to 826LA and write “8/26 Day” on the memo line of your check.
2. Follow this link to donate online: http://826la.org/donate/
3. Purchase a ticket to 826’s Where The Wild Things Are pre-release screening benefit, featuring a sneak peek of a film I cannot wait to see, with a screenplay written by Dave Eggers. Please include a note with your purchase saying you’d like your donation to go toward the 8/26 Day drive.
Or—and this can also be in addition to your donation—you can buy Sheep Can’t Fly, and be shocked, stunned and amazed by what a few teenagers and one of the smartest non-profits in the country can do.