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Patrick Shaffner gets his photo taken for 826CHI's Moustache-A-Thon fundraiser.

Young adults discuss appeal of volunteering for writing center

by Leor Galil
Feb 16, 2010

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The Moustache-A-Thon

The fourth annual Moustache-A-Thon fundraiser for 826CHI began Jan. 20. The month-long event includes a competition for organic growers, people who can grow moustaches naturally, and “prosthetic” growers, people who create fake moustaches for the event.   

Participants help raise money for 826CHI by asking friends, co-workers and strangers to pledge money for their involvement in the competition. Growers meet at Sheffield’s every Thursday for a weekly contest and check-in.

Moustache-A-Thon contestants are hoping to raise $15,000 by the competition’s end on Feb. 25. For more information, visit the Moustache-A-Thon Web site:

Volunteering for 826CHI

Though a large number of the nearly 200 volunteers at 826CHI are in their 20s and 30s, the writing center welcomes anyone who is passionate about helping the organization. To volunteer, you must fill out an online form at the 826CHI Web site:

It appeared to be a normal Thursday night at Sheffield’s, with 20-and 30-somethings packing the bar’s backroom. Yet the evening’s patrons weren’t just at the bar to drink and socialize, they were there to support a local writing program for kids.     

One of eight literacy centers sprinkled throughout the U.S. under the “826” banner, 826 Chicago, also known as 826CHI, was created to engage 6- to 18-year-olds in creative writing. Established in October, 2005, the organization  helps kids improve their writing skills with one-on-one tutoring in school and at the organization’s Wicker Park headquarters. 

Volunteers are the backbone of 826CHI’s success, and a number of them, along with program benefactors, filled Sheffield’s for the literacy center’s fourth annual Moustache-A-Thon fundraiser, sporting real and fake moustaches.

Before the night’s events began, a handful of volunteers talked about why they spend time working with 826CHI:    

In the beginning:     

Patrick Shaffner, 27, has been with 826CHI since its inception.

“Originally, there were four of us -- two interns and two staff members,” Shaffner said. “I was one of those interns and I have not left since.”    

Shaffner has since moved on to become one of five full-time employees at the writing center. As 826CHI’s outreach coordinator, Shaffner spends his time planning events such as the Moustache-A-Thon and managing the Boring Store, the spy-themed storefront connected to the 826CHI headquarters.  

Though Shaffner became a paid employee, he still has the same enthusiasm for 826CHI that motivates many of the volunteers.  

“[To] get kids excited and feel empowered and to know there are people out in the community who want to hear their voices and will do all sorts of stuff in order to get their voices heard, I thought that was a real exciting thing,” he said.  

From requirement to enjoyment:  

“It started out I just had a lot of time to kill because I got laid off,” said Kareem Hindi, 27. “Instead of wasting time in a coffee shop like I’ve been doing for most of the time, I decided to spend two hours a week to help somebody else out.”  

Hindi, now an office manager at a doctor’s office, discovered 826CHI through the work of Dave Eggers, the acclaimed author who founded the charter program in San Francisco in 2002. For Hindi, volunteering at 826CHI allows him to reach out to the community of his own volition.  

“I volunteered in the past [as a school requirement], but that was more soup kitchen-type stuff,” he said.

At 826CHI, Hindi has found a more engaging type of volunteer work. “I was an English major in school and so I thought I could actually use skills to volunteer a little bit more productively than just kind of helping people serve soup,” he said. 

There for the kids:  

When Claire Hiatt isn’t waitressing, she spends her time as an intern for 826CHI. The 25-year-old is looking to get a masters degree in education, so her time spent at the writing center has provided her with the perfect opportunity to work with kids.  

“I really like the one-on-one time with the students,” Hiatt said. “I was briefly involved with Open Books, which is a similar program in the Ukrainian Village, and I’ve been involved in other teaching areas, but [826CHI] is much more of a classroom environment.”  

Hiatt has been volunteering with 826CHI for a little more than a year and finds that she keeps coming back because of the people involved and the youth with whom they work.   

“A gal who’s in here right now told me that she always feels better every time she walks out than when she walks in,” Hiatt said. “That just stuck with me.”    

A history of helping:  

Steve Heisler discovered 826CHI through friends and co-workers who were involved in the organization. The 27-year-old first got involved during last year’s fundraiser and recently began tutoring once a week.   

Heisler served as a judge for Thursday’s moustache-growing contest, an addition to his volunteerism for 826CHI. A freelance writer who’s written for The A.V. Club, Entertainment Weekly and GQ, Heisler said he enjoys being able to use his volunteer and work experience at the writing center.  

“I used to tutor English when I was in high school, and I was a camp counselor for many years,” he said. “It was kind of a perfect fit of getting to work with kids. ” 

For education, for fun:  

One of 75,000 individuals serving the country as a part of the AmeriCorps citizen service program, Rachel Fischhoff, 24, is no stranger to volunteering.  

“I work in adult education right now,” Fischhoff said. “I’m just working part time, so I have a lot of free time. I’m interested in education and maybe teaching, so it was a cool opportunity to work with kids.”  

While Fischhoff has enjoyed the ability to help out others in her free time, she relishes attending 826CHI-hosted social events like the Moustache-A-Thon fundraiser.  

“You feel, you know, appreciated,” Fischhoff said. “That sounds so greedy and needy, but it’s nice.”