Sunday 7 October 2007

Letter from America: Tom Urwin

This week's Letter from America comes from Tom Urwin, who studied at San Francisco State University:

"On my year abroad in San Francisco, I took an internship at 826 Valencia, San Francisco's only independent Pirate Supply Store. Originally I did it to get a visa extension (who wouldn't want an opportunity to stay in SF as long as possible?), but it ended up being the focus of my second semester.

As well as the store front, which sells compasses, spare peg legs, hats, eyepatches, glass eyes, lard, and everything else the working pirate needs, 826 Valencia is a non-profit writing workshop for kids aged 8-18, set up by author and publisher Dave Eggers in 2002. They run various free programs in 3 main areas: in-schools programs, where volunteers go into a local school to work on existing projects set up by teachers, everything from checking and helping with college entrance essays to writing Shakespearean sonnets (I have a thank-you note with a picture of me as William Shakespeare from one kid); field trips, where up to 30 kids come into the workshop to create a book in a 2-hour session; and after school homework drop-in, which also serves as a free childminding service for parents who can't get out of work to pick up their kids. The workshop is in the middle of the Mission district, a largely latino/hispanic area, and focuses on working with kids from immigrant families, especially where English isn't a primary language.

As an intern, I worked on all the above projects, as well as doing various tasks related to keeping the whole non-profit organisation ticking over. Mainly this involved photocopying and phoning up regular volunteers to beg, cajole and threaten them into helping out on the projects. Probably the most fun were the field trips. Most mornings, a class of kids would come in to make a book, with the help of a group of volunteers. The kids would usually be aged 8-11, though in the summer we had an unplanned group of about 40 6-year-olds come in, and I got roped into leading the whole trip! The kids sit in rows facing a projector screen, where the story appears in front of them, typed up by a volunteer at a computer. The field trip leader goes through the basics of a story - characters, setting, conflict etc - and the kids build the story
themselves. Another volunteer, usually a local artist, brings the characters to life on a drawing board at the front, and after two or three pages have been completed in the group, the kids are given paper and pencils, and each one has to finish the story by themself.

While this goes on, interns and volunteers take the completed pages and illustrations, photocopy them and collate them together, and when a kid has finished, the book is bound there and then in the workshop. Now, as well as the leader, artist and typist, there's one other person who helps out with the field trips, and that is the terrifying Mr Blue. Mr Blue is a cranky old publisher, who lives in the attic above the workshop, is never seen, and has read everything ever written by anyone, ever. This ensures all the characters are original, and there's no Spongebobs or anything else like that. He periodically shouts down at the kids and generally grumbles about the state of the stories he has to read. At the end of the session, all the finished books get sent up for his approval. Amazingly, he is blown away by the quality of writing, and each book gets his stamp of approval. I spent many happy mornings hiding up the ladder shouting at children.

The photo above (which is on the 826 Valencia homepage) was taken on my first day working there. They put me with Arkangel, who I later learned was one of the big initiation rites for volunteers - he was very easily distracted! All he had to do was sit and read to me a chapter or two of his book, but he managed to find a million little distractions. So, since his book was about pirates, we popped into the pirate store up front, borrowed a couple of hats and an eyepatch and bingo! he's reading and happy.

In my time there I got to meet Dave Eggers, Valentino Achak Deng (the inspiration behind What Is The What) and a whole load of writers, journalists and generally inspirational Bay Area creative minds, a large number of whom were under 18. Other highlights included the summer writing camp, a week-long program for high school students, where I got to know some of the kids really well, and who I hung out with (I'm not ashamed to say) at the Harry Potter final book launch midnight party."