Step inside Robot Supply and Repair in downtown Ann Arbor and you’ll quickly realize something unusual is afoot.
The first clues are the store’s retail products, which include a potato-powered clock and a paint-can pinhole camera. Then there are the books by McSweeney’s publishing house lining the shelves, and the curtain beyond which writing tables and loaded bookshelves can be spied. Keep exploring, and it becomes clear: Robot Supply and Repair is a front.
The shop’s real objective? Luring young people to 826michigan, a writing and tutoring center created to inspire in them a love of books and writing. And the ruse seems to be working: The center serves 2,000 students a year, many of whom drop in after school for tutoring and time to read and write among like-minded kids.
“I came across it via walking down Liberty Street,” says Jim Ottaviani, 47, a librarian and former nuclear engineer who has been volunteering as a tutor at 826michigan for several years. “I like the fact that it’s a trick because it’s a lot of fun. People like surprises. Once you’re behind the curtain, it’s an open environment where students and tutors learn together and do so in a pretty relaxed, non-judgmental, friendly atmosphere.”
The non-profit organization is one of eight in a nationwide network founded by Dave Eggers, founder and editor of McSweeney’s and author of six books, including the bestselling memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Eggers founded 826 Valencia in San Francisco after Heartbreaking was published with the intention of helping kids become enthusiastic and skilled writers.
“There are three very broad values that all [the centers] share,” says Amanda Uhle, 826michigan’s executive director. “First, writing is important for every child — for kids who excel and want to do more, but especially for kids who are struggling. The second is how we address what we perceive as a real societal problem, which is that kids are getting so much less one-on-one time with adults than they used to. We think one-on-one attention is incredibly important to students. The third thing is that everything is free. We don’t charge for anything at all — ever.”
The organization’s financial model is partially dependent on its storefront. Robot Supply and Repair may be a ruse to attract curious kids and adults, but it’s also a true retail shop. Its revenues cover 826michigan’s rent and half its utilities, Uhle says. Most of the other centers also have storefronts; 826 Valencia is concealed behind a pirate shop, 826NYC supplies superhero gear; 826LA includes a time-travel shop, and so on.
The Ann Arbor center serves about 20 percent of its students on-site on a drop-in basis. Others come to the center in school groups for planned programs. The center reaches yet more young people by regularly dispatching volunteers to local schools, libraries, and housing sites.
“We know the kids who need the help the most are the least likely to get themselves here,” Uhle says. “We have a big emphasis on outreach.
“You can never shine a light enough on the fact that teachers need help,” she adds. “A teacher gives a writing assignment to her 32 kids and what happens in the next half-hour? The two kids with the most need and maybe the kid who excels get attention. We send in four adults, so now every kid who needs it or wants it gets that attention. That’s our biggest program.”
Behind the curtain at 826 on a recent Friday morning, a visiting group of energetic second-graders from Ypsilanti settles in for a morning of story crafting. As a volunteer, Kati Shanks, begins chatting with the students, a disembodied voice fills the room: Dr. Blotch, demands that Shanks provide him with a story by noon that day or be fired. Shanks pleads with the students to help her, and the creative juices start flowing.
Over the next two hours, as the giddy group generates a tale about a super bunny living in the forest with his sidekick, Spikey, and the duo’s nemesis, a cat named Mr. Fox, Dr. Blotch, (actually a young volunteer at a desk in the basement whose voice is patched in through a mike and headphones) eggs the students on by expressing considerable skepticism that their story will pass muster. When the story reaches a point of conflict, Dr. Blotch’s voice booms into the room to demand that each student produce his or her ending.
The kids then fan out to the various tables to write their endings. Each table is staffed by a volunteer who helps guide them. Once they’re finished, another volunteer collects and relays the stories to Dr. Blotch who, the kids are told, has rejected every story ever presented to him. But, one by one, Dr. Blotch finds the stories worthy, and the kids shriek in collective excitement with each approval.
“We have kids who come to us in October, and they’ll be working on a project in April and their teacher will tell me they say, ‘Do you think Dr. Blotch would like it?’ ” Uhle says.
Before they leave, 826 volunteers print and bind the pages of each story so that every child leaves with his or her own original book. The organization emphasizes project-based learning to encourage collaboration and a sense of ownership in children. Programs nearly always end with a finished product.
The organization has plans for expansion, Uhle says. Ann Arbor was its first Michigan site, in part because the city has a lot of foot traffic and, with the presence of the University of Michigan, plenty of willing and capable volunteers. (Detroit would be a logical location. The newly established volunteer Reading Corps shows the desire.)
Lois Kane, an 826 tutor, says the Ann Arbor center operates with a “huge sense of humor.”
“There’s something experimental about what they’re doing,” she says. “It’s calm and loving and the confidence they have goes into the kids.
“Schools don’t have time to have confidence in every kid,” she adds. “They’re obliged to keep pushing each child, and we’re not. We’re not obliged to push them, but we can have faith that things will work out for them and their world. The schools have to make them pass those tests. We’re meeting them at the place they are.”
Stanard is an Oak Park-based freelancer.