Anyone who's been to an 826 National Chapter knows that they're something special. The youth writing and tutoring centers operate behind quirky storefronts in eight cities nationwide, including Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and New York. The organization takes its name from the original 826 Valencia St. address in San Francisco where it was conceived by author and McSweeney's founder Dave Eggers in a "Pirate Supply Store." Since July, a nonprofit based on the 826 template called The LAB ("Literary Arts Boom") has been operating in Garfield, overseen by "lead experimentalist" Paula Levin.
Open for business in Penn Avenue's Assemble gallery is a "Mad Science Supply" pop-up store that provides an outreach tool for The LAB. Behind an array of surreal products for sale — including "Time Travel Capsules" and "Transparent Person Detectors" —there's a space where kids ages 6 through 18 can come after school for free weekly homework help and tutoring sessions run by volunteers.
"Teachers are really crunched for time and resources," says Levin, 32, who began the project as part of her public-policy masters'-degree studies at Carnegie Mellon University "Having a space that's outside of that system and that pressure is good for everybody."
Particularly when that space is a little wacky. Along with homework help, The LAB holds free youth workshops every Monday. These "Experi-Monday" sessions provide innovative ways to improve literacy. Past workshops have been devoted to "Choose Your Own Adventure," kinetic poetry and a four-week "Comics Club" that resulted in a chapbook of student work being published and sold in the storefront.
"I read in a report that kids in elementary school now are going to write more than any previous generation," says Levin. "It's technology. So much of the world is sending emails and we're [inundated] with them. Kids need to be able to write clearly."
The LAB was given a Spark Award by the Sprout Fund, and Levin holds a fellowship from CMU's Heinz College that allows her to work on the project full time. After six months, The LAB has had more 200 youth participants, 40 volunteers and a regular crowd at the Tuesday homework help sessions.
While kids from any community are welcome, most who have visited so far are from surrounding neighborhoods. At one I attended, in December, Levin hadn't finished chalking the blackboard that advertises the two-hour open house before R.J., 10, had snuck up behind her and tickled her. A Garfield local, R.J. attends Arsenal School and has been coming for homework help consistently enough to have a rapport with the volunteers. After completing The LAB's weekly writing prompt, he attempted to charm his way out of doing his math homework so he could paint the mural in Assemble devoted to expressing "Why I love Garfield."
The "Mad Science" storefront proved a lure for Obi, 9, who attends Waldorf School. He had decided to drop in for the first time after his mother purchased him some Mix N Cats toy-cat parts in the store. He mouthed "This is awesome," and told his mother she could leave him to finish his homework and discuss fantasy novels with the volunteers.
"Mad Science" seems an apt metaphor for how The LAB blends groups and ideas. Aside from sharing space with Assemble, Levin frequently collaborates with the art-and-technology gallery on programming. The LAB creates a structure in which artists who are new to Garfield can connect with more established neighborhood families. Volunteers at The LAB have included mixed media artist Sam Perry, 23; comic-book artist Everett Glenn, 27; and Gene Boyer, 46, president of a local construction company.
"Ten, 15 years ago, you wouldn't want to walk through this neighborhood at night," says Boyer. "It's great to know there's a place you can drop your kids off in a healthy, creative environment where they are safe and there's a structure where they can learn. The more you reach out to the community and say, ‘Hey, maybe you'd never come to an art gallery, but you should check this out,' the better."
Levin is branching out from the 826 model by incorporating forays into science. One writing workshop was devoted to hybrid inventions, and Levin is interested in having LAB students involved in creating the mad-science-themed products for the storefront. She is eager to collaborate with those with scientific backgrounds as well as artists and teachers. "We can't be everything," Levin repeatedly laments. She intends The LAB to eventually become 826 Pittsburgh — though applications for 826 affiliation are closed until next January — and move into its own location. For the time being, The LAB is still experimenting.