“What the heck is this thing?”

One weekend, in the spring of 2013, Tom Bianchi passed by the Liberty Street Robot Supply & Repair shop on his way to get some coffee after work. After multiple occasions of passing the robot shop and questioning its purpose, Tom investigated to find a bit more information.  Years later, Bianchi is the program assistant for the nonprofit.

Bianchi’s reaction of intrigue is exactly what 826michigan hopes to evoke.

The Liberty Street Robot Supply & Repair shop is home to 826michigan, a nonprofit organization that is committed to developing creative writing skills through writing workshops and tutoring sessions for students ages six to 18.

The traffic of people coming into the shop out of curiosity is how most volunteers and students get involved with the organization.

“It is something that is subliminally in your mind all the time. A robot shop? That is a weird thing,” Bianchi said. “If you walk by enough times, it actually draws you in.”

The shop isn’t designed to bring people seeking robot expertise to Liberty Street. It’s intended for the child who is enamored by the robot, and comes in to see more.

Initially, when you walk into the shop, shelves full of robot-themed supplies, books and apparel greet you. Further in, you find the home of 826michigan, with tutoring areas, writing labs and shelves of children’s books, most of which are published works of the students who have worked with the organization.  

826michigan is a branch of a national organization started in 2002 by writer and editor Dave Eggers and educator Nínive Clements Calegari. 826 has chapters in areas all over the country, serving students and teachers in numerous learning communities.

826michigan provides services such as writing workshops, field trips, drop-in tutoring, publishing and outreach projects that are meant to fuel creativity, at no cost to students. The programs for these projects are designed to be fun and productive, as 826 emphasizes the importance of one-on-one attention and assistance for each student who works in the writing lab. Over 3,000 students in the southeastern Michigan area work annually with the organization.

The focus of expressing imagination through writing encourages children to develop their ideas into a story. The satisfaction of seeing their work published keeps them coming back.

Schools in the Ann Arbor area travel to the shop on field trips, where often an entire scenario is created through words, with layers of theatrics, to encourage students to get excited about a new writing experience. Volunteers and staff get to witness the process of students coming into a new environment, mixing ideas with excitement and eventually creating a story dictated entirely by their thoughts and imagination.

After years of reading numerous stories written by children visiting the shop, Bianchi’s favorite works come from the wildest ideas.

“With students that age, anything can happen,” Bianchi said. “We’re in the middle of a chase and the protagonist has to stop for coffee. If the characters want to, they stop for coffee.”

During a staged interrogation in a crime-mystery themed field trip, one student’s theory was as follows:

“We should ask every one of these potential suspects if they like cake. Because if they don’t like cake, then obviously they are a bad person, and they did it.”

As Bianchi puts it, the kids’ ideas are “the perfect logic of it.” It’s out there. It’s unpredictable. It’s crazy. But it’s acceptable.

During a release party at the Boggs School in Detroit — a partner school of the organization — students presented their new publication “Where Is It Coming From?” Communications coordinator of 826michigan Courtney Randolph described the experience as memorable and rewarding, both for students and teachers.

“I loved seeing their pride when Dave Eggers himself declared his love of the students’ pieces,” Randolph said. “He stepped away from the microphone to allow them to read their writing while he listened as part of the audience.”

The transformation from students’ initial reactions to working with the organization, to the result of seeing their pride toward their published work is gratifying.

“It moved me especially because some of the writers published in that book were terrified to write on the first day of our workshop,” Randolph said.  “To see those same students beaming with broad smiles as they autographed books for Dave Eggers was very special.”

The focus on personal recognition helps students feel individually encouraged toward their writing. 826 believes that their staff’s individual dedication to a story and excitement toward it will lay the foundation to continued development of writing skills for students of all ages. The one-on-one discussions between staff and students reminds students that their ideas are taken seriously and their work is valuable, which produces confidence toward their future development as writers.

826michigan has locations in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, as well as a new location in Detroit. The nonprofit also travels to other schools in these areas to work with teachers and students in the comfort of their classrooms.

“This has unequivocally been one of the best work experiences of my life,” Randolph said. “I deeply believe in our mission to teach and inspire a love of writing in students.”

If you find yourself on East Liberty Street, passing the shop and asking yourself, “What the heck is this thing?” your curiosity will lead to a lot more than just robot repair supplies. 

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