Spring Break Service with 826 Chicago!

This past spring break, I travelled to Chicago with five other awesome females to work with 826 Chicago, a non-profit writing and tutoring center. The trip was organized by KU Alternative Breaks, an organization that sends students on service trips all around the country! I wrote a blog post about each day of our trip – and here they are.

Monday

Bailey looks ethereally at the camera as we shop for groceries at the market.
Bailey looks ethereally at the camera as we shop for groceries at the market.

This morning, our all-female group woke up at the leisurely hour of 7:15 a.m. in our lovely room at Hostelling International in Chi-town. After a complimentary breakfast at the hostel and a run-in with a KState Alternative Breaks group, we headed to a small locally owned grocery store about 10 minutes away called the South Loop Market.

After an adventurous and food-filled morning we finally headed to the Boring Store! (It’s definitely not a spy store or anything.) We got to meet the full-time employees at 826 Chicago, including an adorable long-haired dachsund named Chester. He’s not an employee. I don’t think.

Then they did the worst.

They handed the six of us a stack of books written by the kids of 826 Chicago over the past few years and told us to go to a totally hipster coffee shop around the corner and read up for the next few hours. And that we did. We reveled in the stories and poems of kids ages 6 to 18. I read a funny compilation about a funny guy named Jared who liked to play with eraser cubes and wear a muumuu, as well as an introspective story about a trash can called “Keeper of Past Importance.”

A lovely fifth grader named Jocelyn Ortega wrote, “The leaves fall down from the trees because they want to kiss the sidewalk and want to go trick-or-treating.”

Ashley, Bailey and Maddy reading books written by the kids of 826 at Filter!
Ashley, Bailey and Maddy reading books written by the kids of 826 at Filter!

Amazing.

After our glorious reading time, Bailey and I went to Clemente High School with Zach from 826 to work with a writing class. It was an interesting experience. Erik Adams, the assistant TV editor for the AV Club, a subsidiary of the Onion, spoke to the class about interviewing tactics. Picture this: Second semester seniors in an elective class. On a Monday. During the last period of class for the day. The students were not quite captivated, but it was a good experience nonetheless.

Around 3:30 p.m., Bailey and I headed back to our site to participate in 826’s after school tutoring program! I got to help this super awesome 6th grader named Cristian with his math homework. Fractions are hard, man. Real hard. I hope to work with Cristian again, though, because I think we really connected in regards to trapezoids and video games.

Maddy is a pro at onion stirring.
Maddy is a pro at onion stirring.

Finally, our group made a delicious late dinner of fajitas and reflected about each other’s personal goals for the trip. It was fantastic to hear everyone else’s personal goals too – from lofty to simplistic.

Tuesday – here we come.

Tuesday

Bright and early this morning, we headed to the Chicago Public Library to mount about 18 escalators up to the ninth floor. Our touristy thing for the day: we visited the Bean! We also got free Starbucks on the street! Awesome!

The group visiting the public library. Check out the mini-Bean!
The group visiting the public library. Check out the mini-Bean!

Around 1 p.m., we attempted some papercrafts for 826’s spring fundraiser: Promic-con. (Previous prom-themed Prom Hanks and Keep Prom and Carry On). Maddie was an expert at said papercrafts.

We also worked as tutors in the afterschool tutoring program again. Tilyn and I got to work at the writing station, where students could go when they wanted to take a break from their homework. Each student got the same prompt and then wrote away! Today’s prompt involved a 30-hour dance party. It was fantastic.

Papercrafts! I was def the nerdy one in the group. D&D? I’ve got that. Avengers, Dr. Who, HP? Oh yeah.
Papercrafts! I was def the nerdy one in the group. D&D? I’ve got that. Avengers, Dr. Who, HP? Oh yeah.

From first graders to sixth, there were more unique, weird and awesome stories than I’ve heard, quite possibly ever. I specifically adored witnessing a fifth grader named Harry write his piece about Gangnam Style. His voice showed so clearly in his writing, despite his extremely quiet demeanor. At the end of his story he wrote, “They served beer at the dance, but as that would be inappropriate for the writer of the story, I stuck with water.” Genius.

Obviously, I also enjoyed connecting with the kids about One Direction. So many of the girls loved hearing that I was obsessed with the five boys, and after shaking his head that he didn’t like them, a little boy named Jose shrugged and then responded, “Well…I actually really like Niall’s hair.” Not an experience that I would give up for the world.

We left 826 after the new-volunteer orientation and had a tense time at the Jewel Osco as we attempted to purchase food for our dinner. Carb-starved, we grabbed some frozen chicken nuggets and splurged on deluxe macaroni for $2.55.

Artsy macaroni!
Artsy macaroni!

Then, as we do, we got locked out of our room at the hostel. We cooked a delicious and non-extraordinarily healthy dinner with a group from Oklahoma. While our noodles boiled, we danced to Beyonce with some of the people from Oklahoma missions group in the hostel kitchen. I had this surreal experience when Love on Top came on, which was the song of my previous break group. That group defined so much of my college experience. Like two paths that I thought were different, coming together.

The ladies of 826 then bonded over burlesque dance moves, bra sizes and penguin gummies. A great day!

Wednesday

Today began early for four of us; Megan, Tilyn, Ashley and Maddy went to Cameron Elementary School to work on a project with some seventh graders at 8:45 a.m., while Bailey and I got to sleep in a while longer. We had a lovely breakfast of toast and marmalade at the hostel before heading to our site. Our leisurely day rapidly became slightly more stressful though, when we accidently took the L-train the opposite direction of our site. Whoops!

We made it to 826 Chicago just in time to witness an amazing program that 826 puts on almost every day during the week – a class field trip! Second and third grade classes file into the main room at the site at the premise of helping one of the employees write a story! The students create the illustrations with a fantastic artist and then get their stories approved by the “boss of the publishing company”, the intimidating Admiral Moody. Complete with improv acting and creative story-telling techniques, the students create different endings for a story that they created together.

Bailey and I got to work with the students on their individual stories, which was, well, a really cute experience. The class was from a Spanish speaking school so they were allowed to write their stories in either English or Spanish. I thoroughly enjoyed working with Jesus, who finished his story about Chuck the Hamburger Man and his sidekick, Robo Jack, by having them vanquish the horrible villain Mike Ninja amidst a dangerous jewel heist. Sweet success.

The rest of our group joined us for lunch (boat-sized portions of rice and vegetables) and then we changed into our oh-so-attractive paint clothes to decorate the Boring Store, the front “façade” of the organization. Each 826 chapter is complete with an accompanying store. 826’s is called The Boring Store and sells spy supplies! We got to spackle and sand down the walls of the store and paint it a cool retro gray hue. Again, sweet.

As we have every day this week, we helped out with tutoring again. Tilyn and I took our coveted place at the writing table where we got to work with students like Yesi and Ingrid! Yesi, who was all-too excited about my “You’re on the top of a giant boulder in a magical dark forest. How do you get out?” prompt from yesterday, was desperate for more fun times. Today I told her to describe a day in her life, as if she was her cat and a day in her cat’s life, if her cat was in her body. Suffice to say, she had a very creative response.

Pancakes, sausage and eggs for dinner were the perfect almost-ending to our day. Post-deliciousness, we visited the room of our KState Alternative Break friends to set up a breakfast meeting. Bailey, our ever-cheerful leader invitingly knocked on their door, strode in and proclaimed, “Hi KState! It’s KU! We’d like to formally invite you to break fast with us tomorrow morning!”

Diplomacy at its finest.

 Thursday

Regardless of my lack of loquaciousness today, we had an amazingly long and full day.

Tilyn donned a disguise at the writing table at 826 to greet the kids who came to spread their creative genius
Tilyn donned a disguise at the writing table at 826 to greet the kids who came to spread their creative genius.

The whole group started up the morning with a field trip at the site. Third graders are the bomb. They are full of more enthusiasm and brilliance than I’ve seen in a long while. Though I thought this break would decrease my faith in humanity and all of that, the adventures of a villainous cat named Scooter Fuzzy as developed by a group of inner-city third graders has given me a renewed faith.

Post-lunch we went to LaSalle II Elementary School to work with a group of eighth graders on a project in conjunction with our site. They were assigned to write a short story about anything that they chose. And boy did they have some insanely creative pieces. We each got the chance to work one-on-one with a few students to revise their pieces. I met with Jose, Diamond and Malik. Jose wrote about a bullying and a school shooting, while Diamond decided upon a 16-page melodrama about a 14-year old girl with two boyfriends who decides to go on a shopping spree with her father’s credit card.

I connected best with a confident young man named Malik. He wrote an incredibly imagery heavy short about a high-school age boy named Christopher. During a meeting with one of his teachers after school, Chris is asked how he feels about death. He brushes it off, only to realize that his teacher has passed the Grim Reaper scythe to him. He wakes up the next day to realize that he has transformed into his worst nightmare. Intensity ensues.

Tilyn and I created a collage of our favorite words to inspire the kids at the writing table!
Tilyn and I created a collage of our favorite words to inspire the kids at the writing table!

Once again, Tilyn and I got to work at the writing center during after-school tutoring time. Making short, but lasting connections with a few kids that had visited our table day after day has been my favorite part of this entire break experience. We even ran into Yesi, a girl from our site, at LaSalle II this morning! She was so excited to show us where she came to learn each day.

Back at the hostel, we dined with the students from a fifth grade private school class who cooked our dinner based on a country they were studying at school. The hostel has a program in which students from local schools study a country (this time, it was Brazil) and then come to the hostel to share it with people from all over! I found it fascinating to explore the different types of education options that a city of this size has to offer.

Just meerkating around in our hostel room.
Just meerkating around in our hostel room.

We ended the day with an intense talk about the relation between race and socio-economic level, played Spoons and then played with some more spoons. Maddy is really good at making some sweet noises, for any lovers of the unique instrument out there.

Friday

What a fantastic final day. After the normal L-train ride and breakfast of muffins and toast, we knocked on the door of the Boring Store for the last time.

Kendra, the volunteer coordinator, sent us out on the streets of Chicago, armed with our smartphones (for navigation purposes) and an armful of 826 PR materials. We canvassed local coffee shops and bakeries, spreading the good word of the organization.

One last look at the Boring Store!
One last look at the Boring Store!

Over the course of the next few hours, we explored some of the most hipster and amazing-smelling locales in Wicker Park. I may have bought a delicious chocolate pastry and a balsamic fig macaroon. Also a ginger and peach Kombucha drink. Because I’m that fancy.

We ate a delicious lunch of cheese sticks, Greek yogurt and PB&Js made with jelly donated from a local coffee shop. The six of us worked on small things around the site, like finding a local store to donate paint and primer for a fundraiser and finishing our clean-up of the Boring Store.

As we were saying goodbye to all of the awesome leadership at 826 Chicago, they gave us certificates for volunteering there, a free book written by the kids, and spy name badges with our pictures on them. These folks are some of the sweetest people on the planet.

Ever-faithful Jayhawks, we headed to the Crossing, a KU-centric sports bar to watch the game, decked out in our Kansas apparel. Despite having to watch the game out in the cold Chi-town air, we had a blast and spoiler alert, we won the game against WVU.

Ashley, Bailey, Megan, me, Tilyn and Maddy, in front of the Boring Store, the storefront to 826 Chicago. This store brings about 10 percent of the funds for 826 and is a successful channel between the local community and the organization.
Ashley, Bailey, Megan, me, Tilyn and Maddy, in front of the Boring Store, the storefront to 826 Chicago. This store brings about 10 percent of the funds for 826 and is a successful channel between the local community and the organization.

Nothing we did this week felt like work. I am so fortunate to have spent the last week with a group of fabulous females, learning about our amazing site. I was blown away by the respect that the employees at 826 had for each other and the incredibly mission-driven aspect of this organization. As Ashley said – those who can do, teach. I loved tutoring Cristian, making up prompts for Yesi at the writing table, and helping Malik create his Grim Reaper short story.

Yes, I’m stressed about what I’m going back to, but I love what I’ve learned, and the inspiring and ingenious people I have met this week. I have so enjoyed being a Site Leader with Bailey and without her leadership we would not be as unified. She is brilliant at knowing when to take charge, ask for input and claims the respect of others easily.

Thanks, Alternative Breaks, 826 Chicago and my lovely ladies Maddy, Tilyn, Megan, Ashley and Bailey. You rock.

If you’re interested in reading about my last service trip with KU Alternative Breaks to the LGBT Center of Charlotte, click here.

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  1. Natalie – You articulate your experiences extremly well. IT makes one feel they are right there with you. You are destined to be a great writer!
    Grandpa Matcuk

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