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Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts Entertainment Chicago Illinois
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Boosting local youths' writing cred one mustache at a time.
Monday Feb 26, 2007.     By Gavin Paul Giovagnoli
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

photo: courtesy of 826CHI
Imagination is key when it comes to inspiring kids to write. So building a Boring Store as the source of funds for after-school center 826CHI would be a hard sell…if it weren't a super-duper, top-secret cover for what's actually a spy supply depot. Enter the storefront and you'll find everything from envelope x-ray spray to banana cell phone covers. The best part: When you buy your spy gear, your money goes to a good cause.

Founded in October 2005 with the help of Executive Director Leah Guenther and Director of Education Mara O'Brien, 826CHI is the local chapter of author Dave Eggers' (Heartbreaking Work of a Staggering Genius) San Francisco-based not-for-profit 826; every center has a quirky store—anything from pirate swag to superhero stuffs—to attract foot traffic and reel in some additional dough. But much like its siblings, 826CHI is 99 percent writing and 1 percent retail, and offers six-18-year-olds workshops, in-school field trips, after-school tutoring and even opportunities to get published. We spoke with Guenther to get the skinny on what lies behind 826CHI's cover.

Besides The Boring Store, is there anything about 826CHI that's uniquely Chicago?
Our volunteers definitely give 826CHI its own unique flair. We see this especially through our workshop program. Our workshop schedules are diverse and creative, ranging from songwriting to ACT prep to CSI:Chicago [ a workshop that incorporates scientific techniques from the field of forensics to solve crimes].

You have a staff of just four. How many volunteers are there?
Yeah, it's pretty bare bones. But since the time that we started accepting applications when we first opened, we've gotten over 900 volunteer applications. So we're really, really lucky.

Do you feel confident that you and your volunteers can cover anything writing-related? For instance, if a student comes in with an intense desire to piece together post-it notes he scavenged, could you help him out?
I can imagine several tutors who would be thrilled to tackle the post-it challenge. Just last week I saw volunteers working with students on an autobiography of life in Africa, a project about Abraham Lincoln and a short story about what it would be like to live as a feather.

Is there a writing program that kids get a particular kick out of?B One of our most popular field trip programs is a story-telling and book-making session where a class full of kids [3rd graders] comes in and we tell them that we're a publishing house and we have a very mean boss named Admiral Moody, who lives in the closet and we've never seen him because he's allergic to children and he's allergic to air. And he's demanding that we write an original story within the framework of two hours. And, the whole time Admiral Moody is yelling at them over a walkie-talkie.

The way that this whole thing starts out is we bring them in and we have them hold up a mustache on a stick, a very bushy, insane mustache, and tell them that we're taking an author photo and that they clearly are lacking a major component of being an author, which is facial hair, and we're going to help them out by giving them a mustache so that they look much more serious.

Tell me about some of the activities you offer daily.
Every day during drop-in tutoring, for example, we have a creative writing time that starts at 4:15, for kids who have already completed their homework. Each day a volunteer directs a different activity; after we collect two weeks worth of work, we combine the pieces into a small book that we bind in-house and pass around to the authors. A few weeks ago we had a Bears-themed volume with various poems, short stories, word collages and letters to various team members. This week we're using some props from the store—a variety of hilarious wigs—to get the kids to come up with stories about when a person might want to wear each particular disguise.

What are some things Chicagoans should know about getting involved?
We are always looking for volunteers. Our website has an application on it…we don't have any minimum time requirements or anything. We have some people who come a couple times a week. We have some people who come every other month. And we have some people who just come when they're between jobs and we only know them for three weeks and they disappear into the world again just when we've fallen in love with them.

Want to get involved with 826CHI? Check out its website at