| Follow Us: Facebook Twitter

Bright Ideas

Encouraged to Think, Create, Write

826michigan is well known for its Robot Repair Store and writing center in downtown Ann Arbor (not to mention its fun, offbeat events). But did you also know they tutor and host workshops in Ypsilanti? From fiction to stage plays to poetry, volunteers at their Drop-In Teen Writing Workshop inspire kids to find expression through words.
Amidst cavorting kids in the basement-level Teen Zone of Ypsilanti District Library, Carolyn Racine rolls in a white board and writes, "Prompt: Transformation. Write a story where a character transforms into an animal." She's setting up shop with a couple of tables in a corner of the zone for the weekly Drop-in Teen Writing Workshop at the library's Michigan Avenue branch.

The evening's drop-in workshop, a product of 826michigan, an Ann Arbor nonprofit with a slew of programs aimed at getting kids interested in writing, has two attendees: Walter, a warm, soft-spoken young man from Ypsilanti, and boisterous, wiry Jasmine, who bounces to the table 30 minutes late, after finishing a homework project due tomorrow at Belleville High School.

Racine's plan is to read a story, "Red Fox Fur Coat," discuss it, and then have the students use the story and the prompt to write. But, instead, Racine decides to use the smaller group size to the students' advantage; they will read and critique a story that Walter has been writing. She explains, "I come prepared with an activity, but I'm ready to change it at the last minute. Being flexible is the way to go."

Racine has been leading this group as a volunteer since September 2011. She encourages the students to suggest what they want to do or write about in the workshops. "I'm always looking for projects that are exciting and the students take ownership of, but that involve writing or critical thinking in some way."  Last year, the group wrote a play collaboratively, with guidance from playwright/actor Russ Schwartz.  "Zombies on the Couch" is a dark tale about a zombie that goes to therapy; later it was performed at Rackham Auditorium by Penny Seats Theatre Company during an 826michigan fundraiser.

Racine says that some students are happy sitting and writing, but others like to be part of a bigger project, like the play, or a poetry slam or publishing a collection of work. Most importantly, they like to have their writing taken seriously by adults.

Racine is pleased for the window of time tonight to review Walter's work. "Walter is very serious about writing. He talks about being an author. So if this is the one thing we do tonight, it will be very beneficial."  She dives into reading Walter's piece, and then shares her comments with the students. Walter listens and nods pensively, and Jasmine chimes in with support and suggestions.

Walter has big plans. He not only wants to be an author, but plans to earn a degree in Japanese from Eastern Michigan University. The 19-year-old graduate of Ypsilanti High School attends Washtenaw Community College and is working diligently on achieving his goals. He studies Japanese on his own and takes a community course too. He's a prolific writer of mystery, fantasy and science fiction, and a regular attendee of the teen drop-in writing workshops, where his writing is encouraged, supported, and, yes, critiqued.

Young adult librarian Jodi Johnson, who created and oversees the library's Teen Advisory Group, initially contacted 826michigan in the summer of 2010 to find support for a small group of teens who liked to write short stories.  The Drop-in Teen Writing Workshop launched that fall with two students and expanded to eight students by the end of the program year. Now in its second year, the program averages a hand full of students each week. Racine anticipates higher participation once the annual collaborative project, a publication of student work, is announced.

Johnson, who knows all the youth by name, says most of the kids that hang out at the library live in a public housing complex 20 minutes away.  She says the teens have told her that the library is safer than the recreation center. Many of the youth come to the library after school, leave to have a meal across the street at the Ozone House, and then return to the library, where there are up-to-date computers and a comfortable environment for socializing and studying.

Johnson says that the Teen Advisory Group engages the students in taking responsibility. "I want them to feel like it's their library, that they have a voice, and they can contribute positively."  She has seen students in the drop-in workshops gain skills in writing, presenting and self-confidence.  

That same self-confidence is also a byproduct of the weekly Drop-in Youth Writing Workshop taking place down the road for eight to 12-year-olds at the Whittaker Road library branch. Here, too, writers are given the freedom to think and write creatively with guidance and encouragement from a team of loyal 826michigan volunteers.

Leader of the youth workshop, Chantay Woods, says the most profound changes she sees in students is confidence. "At the end of each session I leave time to share what each person has written," says Woods. "At first the students were hesitant about sharing, but now that we have been around each other and are comfortable when it's time to share, they are quick to read their writing and are proud of what they have written."

Another volunteer, Becky Welzenbach, sees that confidence too, along with growth of language and the ability to work quietly, independently, and in a sustained way. She says that students, a core group of four boys who faithfully attend and others who drop in occasionally, begin to see writing as fun and rewarding, not as a chore or punishment.

"Watching them learn how to unlock all the good stuff in their heads and get it down on paper, and then hearing their peers' laughter and applause when they share it, is very powerful," says Welzenbach.

Volunteer, David Tumbarello, whose 10-year-old son attends the drop-in workshops, likes the stress-free nature of the program. He has seen his own son's voice develop over time as he creates storylines for the action scenes that he loves to draw.

"They have an opportunity to write from their own interests and not worry about the piece being judged, graded, evaluated, marked, cut up, edited, or collected," says Tumbarello.

From the experimental nature of the workshop, Tumbarello has seen changes in his son's attitude about writing: "In his 826 writing, I hear him play … he has the opportunity to pursue writing as a recreation – like playing football or soccer or baseball. But in this setting, he is exercising his mind."

826michigan is all about mind bending. The six-year-old nonprofit offers after school and drop-in workshops in Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor, drop-in tutoring, and in-school tutoring and programming. The organization relies heavily on the work of volunteers, and uses their passions to bring life to student programs.

"Our system is very much driven by our volunteers' skills and abilities. They come to us with workshop ideas that play to their own strengths and emphasize topics they enjoy," says Amanda Uhle, executive director of 826michigan. She says that volunteers don't need to be cajoled because they aren't given a dictated curriculum. "Students are truly carried away into a fun experience when they see that the adult teaching them is truly inspired and genuinely enjoying the experience, too."

With 450 active yearly volunteers, giving anywhere from two to 20 hours a week of their time, that's more than a backpack full of teaching, sharing, learning and inspiring taking place.

While 826michigan is an independent nonprofit, it is a chapter of 826 National, an umbrella organization that works to open 826 programs across the country. All 826 programs are based on the original 826 Valencia started in San Francisco by writer Dave Eggers to mentor kids in creative writing.

Uhle says the name has meaning to the work 826 does with children. Eggars wanted to take the stigma away from getting help, so he used his address for the organizational name. "Let's take away the association of getting help with being poor and being in need," says Uhle. "We want to make it fun and open to everyone."

826michigan is always looking for volunteers for its Ypsilanti programs. If you are interested contact: [email protected]

Melinda Clynes, a metro Detroit freelance writer, writes about kids' issues, livable communities and travel. She is a regular contributor to Model D and Metromode.

All photos by Doug Coombe


Chantay Woods of 826michigan
Frances Martin and Carolyn Racine of 826michigan
Carolyn Racine of 826michigan
Frances Martin of 826michigan demonstrates a book binding machine
826michigan drop-ins at the Michigan Avenue and Whitaker Road branches

Signup for Email Alerts
Signup for Email Alerts


GreenFist Project at Sprout Urban Farms

How Motivated Kids and Better Food Access Fit Together

Stuart Ray, Mindy Ysasi, Mike Kerkorian, Ellen Carpenter from Grand Rapids' Nonprofits

Jumping Ship: Former Corporate Leaders Tell All

Detroit Future Schools

Flipping the Script on Teacher-and-Textbook Instruction

View All People


Infancy to Innovation list

Infancy to Innovation

Engaging families of color in identifying problems and solutions

Verona Early Grade Reading Achievement

Verona Early Grade Reading Achievement Program

Improving K-2 reading



Mixing learning and fun
View All Programs

Bright Ideas

ostdogood LIST

Company Supports 4th Grade Field Trips to Lake Michigan

Parents working more than one job or odd hours, a lack of funds, and no transportation often prevent kids from experiencing one of Michigan’s incredible natural resources. For the majority of west side Grand Rapids elementary school kids, Lake Michigan is sadly out of reach. OST has teamed up with Grand Rapids Public Schools to give fourth-graders at west side schools the opportunity to experience the big lake firsthand.


Youth Decide Where Grant Dollars are Spent

For Grand Rapids students who serve as trustees-in-training on the GRCF Youth Grant Committee, giving back to the community goes hand in hand with empowering students to succeed. 

1000 Books Program at Kalamazoo Library.

One Thousand Books Before Kindergarten

If you were writing the book of a child's life wouldn't you like it to have a happy ending? Every day more children are signing up for a Kalamazoo Public Library program intended to give them a life that includes loving the reading of books. 
View All Bright Ideas

Directly Related Content