Haven’t spent much time in the Tenderloin – maybe the occasional semi-voluntary visit to the latest funky chic Indian bistro – but then it was drive in, dive in, drive out. But now that I’m volunteering at 826 Valencia’s Tenderloin Center, I’m in by Muni, walking around, working with the kids and walking back to the bus – with eyes open, in the light of day. It’s something to see.
First impression is horrifying: a woman squatting to urinate on the sidewalk, the stream flowing downhill until it meets a sleeping man, open drug dealing, people living and presumably dying on the streets, bags of clothing stashed in doorways already crowded with people, the smells of human waste. The whole panoply of suffering is on display all day long.
But if you’re not here in the afternoons when school lets out, you don’t see the kids. And you don’t realize that families live here, strong, hard-working families who simply don’t make enough money to live anywhere else.
So when the kids get out of school in the afternoon, they walk past all the misery to King Carl’s Emporium in the Tenderloin Center. It’s a store with lots of cool things to inspire adventure and spark the imagination, all personally selected by Carl, a puffer fish who is always around though never seen.
But they’re not here to shop. After a day at school, they settle in to the writing lab for an hour to write stories. It’s a wonderful thing. They write about dogs and pumpkins and wanting to go to Yemen to see their cousins. They write about getting a pit bull for protection, how many pies can be made from a pumpkin big as a house, and the discomfort of sharing your bed with a horse who’s really a cat but takes up as much of the bed as a horse would.
We try to let their imaginations roam while also teaching a bit of structure. We talk about the importance of describing what they’re thinking about, how to build the arc of a story, and a little bit of sentence structure. We correct some spelling errors and throw in a few periods and capital letters. Then they get to play in the treehouse.
826 Valencia, which was founded in 2002 by Dave Eggers and Ninive Calegari is all about helping under-resourced students develop creative writing skills and supporting teachers to inspire creativity in their students. The goal is to smooth the path to academic and career success for kids not born with a wealth of advantages. I hope the kids are getting as much out of it as I am.