826michigan is not your run-of-the-mill youth tutoring service. Upon entering the East Liberty Street center, visitors are met by a robot store that serves as the space’s storefront. There are robot-themed stickers, coloring books, ski hats, building kits and key chains. It is a robot lover’s heaven.
The magical world continues as one walks through draping red-velvet curtains into 826michigan’s headquarters. The room is cozy and inviting with rectangular wooden tables, shelves overflowing with books and long mustard-colored velvet couches that line the back wall.
The dual purpose of the space as both a robot store and learning center is part of 826michgian’s beauty, said Amanda Uhle, executive director of 826michigan’s Ann Arbor location. She said the robot store helps to stir children’s imagination and encourages them to understand that learning isn’t boring. Furthermore, the profits from the store — in addition to outside donations — help to maintain the cost-free services of the non-profit organization.
826michigan works with children ages 6 to 18 on a range of subjects including homework assistance, college applications, creative writing skills and the English language, Uhle said. And students in a variety of programs at the University volunteer their services at the center every day.
Uhle explained that 826michigan functions on the basis of three core values: the importance of writing, one-on-one attention and free services.
Due to recent difficulties including budget cuts to public schools across the country, classroom overcrowding and an increase in parents’ work time, Uhle said that one-on-one interaction between children and their teachers or parents is less frequent. She added that 826michigan is able to help address this problem by providing children with one-on-one tutors.
“We have somehow found a way to make (826michigan) inviting and fun, and the best way you can describe it is to look around at the children who are happy to be here and so relaxed,” she said.
826michigan opened in Ann Arbor in 2005 as an independent organization affiliated with 826national, Uhle said. The national branch was founded in San Francisco by author Dave Eggers, and has since spread to eight locations across the country. Each location has a different store theme, like a pirate store in San Francisco and a superhero store in New York.
The Ann Arbor organization collaborates with local public schools, specifically those in Ypsilanti, and with places like the Ozone House and Avalon Housing — housing organizations that support low-income families in the area — in the hopes of combining learning and fun, Uhle said.
“We serve in a year about 2,000 students and some of those are (at 826michigan) and some of those are out in school classrooms and other places,” she said.
According to Uhle, one of their most successful programs is a second-grade class field trip, in which students come to 826michigan and write and create their own bound books.
“In two hours a second-grader walks in with nothing and walks out with a book that they wrote,” she said.
Volunteers and students using the tutoring services can come by on a drop-in basis whenever they’re available, Uhle said.
“It’s a really appealing volunteer opportunity for people,” she said, “because they don’t have to commit necessarily to a schedule.”
826michigan works closely with the University’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program, and many MFA students are tutors at the center.
Catherine Calabro, the program coordinator of 826michigan, first got involved with the organization while she was a graduate student in the creative writing program. She said she loves the organization’s innovative spin on learning.
“It’s really exciting to see adults and students use their creativity to come up with something together,” Calabro said.
In addition to students in the writing program, Uhle said volunteers of all ages and disciplines are needed and welcome.
LSA senior Erin Bernhard, an 826michigan volunteer, said she feels that she is making a difference by helping a young girl from Korea complete her homework and learn English.
“I absolutely love it,” Bernhard said. “I love being able to make her laugh and smile.”
Education junior Katy Wagner, who also tutors at 826michigan, said the organization is an amiable and worry-free environment for kids and teenagers.
“(826michigan) makes things really fun and relaxed, and so I think that kids don’t feel pressured to have the right answer all the time,” Wagner said.
In addition to the tutoring service, the organization also hosts a variety of writing workshops like poetry writing, prose writing, fairy tale writing and superhero writing. Students’ work is then published online and in several books and catalogs that 826michigan distributes.
Julie Rick, a master’s student in the School of Information, interned at 826michigan this past summer and now works there a few days a week. She said it is really the people behind 826michigan that make the center’s services possible.
“I think that the people who are here want to be here and have a deep love of kids and learning and want to share that to help create life-long learners,” she said.