Promoting literacy with a little help from the 'stache

BY KRISTYN ACHO
Daily Arts Writer
Published February 24, 2010

The allure of the mustache has always been in a state of flux. From the slick bristle of the roaring ’20s to the shaggy ’70s ’stache, facial hair has long been a symbol of manhood. But these days, the mustache seems to have been ostracized by mainstream society.

Mustache-A-Thon Kick-Off


March 8 at 8:26 p.m.
Ann Arbor Brewing Company

So what would compel a group of seemingly lucid, average non-hipster gentlemen of the 21st century to put down their razors and commit this ironic fashion faux pas?

Literacy, of course.

For 826michigan — a nonprofit organization composed of eccentric and creative volunteers who seek to improve writing skills in children throughout the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti area — donning hair on the upper lip has been deemed the perfect avenue for promoting free literacy programs.

Participants in the Mustache-A-Thon, an annual facial hair-growing contest, include volunteers from 826, University students and other men from the Ann Arbor community who admire the organization’s programs. All these brave competitors find local donors to sponsor their efforts. Last year, 30 men participated in the contest, and 826 is anticipating more this year.

Starting March 8, a collection of some of the 826 organization’s favorite fellows will begin their five-week quest of growing a stylish ’stache. Regardless of the 826 team’s seemingly quirky and carefree demeanor, they're completely serious when it comes to all things facial hair. And those considering taking part in mustache mania better be willing to make the cut — of the beard, that is.

“This is a mustache on the upper lip only,” explained 826 Executive Director Amanda Uhle.

The concept is pretty ingenious. Tyler Brubaker, an avid mustache grower and ‘U’ alum, described the experience: “I think I had a goatee for a year or so in college, but since then my upper lip has been unadorned until last March … the mustache isn’t necessarily a good look for a lot of people.”

The participants, who, like Brubaker, aren't typically mustache wearers, are constantly bombarded with quizzical looks and blatant remarks about their ridiculous furry facial features throughout the five weeks. This gives the men the opportunity to tell their friends, co-workers and the occasional befuddled gawker that the mustache is being grown for literacy and that they should look into donating.

But that’s not all participants get for embracing the hirsute. How about buds, bristles and beers? Beginning with a kick-off on March 8, fearless fuzz-free men will meet at Ann Arbor Brewing Company to have their pictures taken by professional photographers. During the course of the event, mustache growers will meet at the brewing company every Monday promptly at 8:26 p.m. Each week, photos will be taken and posted on the 826 blog so readers can donate money in the name of the most innovative, classy or trashy mustaches.

And many growers can’t help but have a little fun with it.

“If you’re really proficient at growing your mustache, you can get the handlebars or the curly Qs,” Brubaker said.

Sure, it’s all fun and games — until somebody vacations with their throwback ’stache.

“Last year I went on vacation during the Mustache-A-Thon and all of the pictures of me at the Grand Canyon looked like they were taken in the 1970s, because I had this giant mustache," Brubaker said. Also, "When you go out west with your mustache, the sweating is an issue.”

Vanities and inhibitions aside, many of this year’s upcoming ’stache growers have already pondered their hairy prospects.

“My upper lip is so sparsely haired that I don't have much freedom to design, but I've always been intrigued by the Salvador Dali, wildly manicured handlebar” said first-time grower and University law student Carlos Torres.

There’s more to 826michigan than mustaches, though. 826 National is an organization founded in part by bestselling author Dave Eggers. After becoming successful, he wanted to find a way to give back to the community. In 2002, he opened 826 Valencia in San Francisco.

According to Uhle, Eggers “wanted to take away the stigma of getting help for kids. So he made the name just the address instead of something that would make the place feel less fun.” Since Eggers opened 826 Valencia in 2002, 826 National has started seven chapters across the country — 826michigan is one of them.

Every 826 writing center has a different theme. At 826 Valencia, there's a pirate ambiance, and 826michigan is all about robots. Uhle says the theme immediately resonates with children when they come into the 826 building.

“It’s fun and different and it engages them in a way that their homework cannot … it just brings the community to our doorstep. It’s a way for us to recruit new donors, new volunteers and new mustache growers. It’s a community portal,” Uhle said.

Many Ann Arbor residents walk into the store without knowing what to expect. Brubaker, who works the store shift four hours a week, explains how the process typically goes down: People ask about the robots, he gives them a straight-laced answer and then lets them know what 826 is really about.

“People get really excited when they know kids they can bring in, and (they bring) money to help support our program, so it’s kind of a community liaison type of thing. You draw them in under one pretense and once they find out what you’re doing, they’re even more excited about it,” Brubaker explained.

Mustaches and robots aside, 826michigan’s literacy pursuits are pretty astonishing themselves. 826 has more than a thousand volunteers, many of whom are Michigan students who tutor children ages six to 18 in everything from math to English. The team also goes to public schools in the Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor area to hold writing workshops.

What surprises most people about the organization is that it is completely volunteer-run and all programs — tutoring, workshops, field trips — are free. 826 Executive Director Uhle and Executive Director Amy Sumerton are the only two paid members on staff.

“It’s a volunteer army of people that want to help,” Brubaker said.

826 even makes young creative writers into published authors — whether it be through their own zine or a specially composed book.

“Kids get super excited when you publish their work,” Brubaker said. “Just the look on their faces when they realize, 'You want to put something I wrote into a book and people want to read it?' It’s a big deal … And to be a published author whether you’re six or 15? That’s a big deal.”

If helping an organization as admirable as 826 isn’t enough of an incentive to convince anxious gents to put their follicles to good use, maybe these accolades will: Every Mustache-A-Thon participant gets a thrift store trophy for his commendable pursuits — complete with its own stylin’ ’stache.