Welcome to 826michigan’s tenth anniversary! In 2015, we’re celebrating ten years of 826michigan by highlighting ten people who have significantly shaped our organization since 826michigan opened its doors in 2005. Follow along with former 826michigan Communications Coordinator Amy Wilson this year as she explores how the contributions of many individuals have contributed to 826michigan’s evolution: from a tiny operation to a full-fledged nonprofit organization serving over 3,000 young people in Detroit, Ypsilanti, and Ann Arbor.
“At 19, 826michigan gave me purpose. I knew what I wanted to do but had no idea I would get there. 826michigan showed me how to ride the wave, because so much of my life now came from my time there — the reason why I am a teacher now is because of 826michigan.”
This month I’m very pleased to share with you a perspective from the one and only Ms. Savannah Charles. In the 2011-2012 school year, Savannah served as our Program Assistant in the after-school tutoring program at Ypsilanti Middle School -– which produced our 2012 major publication What to Call the Place I Call Home and was the predecessor to our current Washington Street Tutoring Lab. Savannah, a native of Detroit, came to 826michigan through Ypsilanti’s Eastern Michigan University and continues to live and work in the area as a teacher at Ypsilanti Community Middle School. In her time with us and after, Savannah has shown herself to be a dynamic, compassionate person with a remarkable ability to connect with and motivate students –- truly, an educator.
As you’ll read, Savannah’s passion for 826michigan’s work came from her personal experience with education and with caring adults who invested in her as a student. We were lucky to have Savannah with us and continue to be lucky to count her among our alumni and supporters in Ypsilanti. Please read on!
“I was born in Detroit. I grew up with my mother. When I was a kid I struggled a lot with reading and I had tutors ever since first grade. My mom is an educator so she really didn’t want me to have that stigma, of not being able to read well. But she always had to pay for tutoring. I don’t remember there being free after-school tutoring or homework help or anything of that sort — I didn’t really learn to read until I was about eight. I felt isolated when I had to meet with my tutor alone without my peers. It almost felt like a punishment. [So,] I love the idea of 826michigan. I think it’s so original, we’re not stigmatizing kids — it’s like hey, drop in, get some help, be a part of this thing. I was a pretty average student. I went to Cass Tech, graduated 2008, and then went on to Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti.
When I was little I wanted to be a doctor. I had asthma and saw doctors a lot, so I wanted to be like the people in the white coats who helped me. I definitely knew I wanted to help people. When I got to middle school, I realized science was not my area — then I wanted to be a psychologist, a therapist. In my tenth grade year my teacher recommended me for AP English in for the next year, eleventh grade. I had no confidence, so I was like, why would you put me there? I thought, this is going to be terrible.
We had summer reading for the AP English class, and I just didn’t do it — I told myself I wasn’t going to go this class. My counselor wouldn’t let me switch the class. So I went to the AP English class for the first semester, but then I said, I’m going to take a regular English class. I went to the regular English class the second semester. My former teacher came over and looked me straight in my face and asked if I had dropped her AP class. Visibly intimidated, I responded. And she walked me down to my counselor and put me back in that class, her AP English class! From that day I was like wow, I have to help people but I have to be a teacher. By 17, I knew I wanted to be a high school English teacher. I ended up doing my student-teaching in an eleventh-grade AP English class, at Skyline High School. Things really came full circle. I still keep in touch with my eleventh-grade teacher.
I thought I wanted to work with high school kids. When I got to Eastern I made the Dean’s List — and in order to maintain an award I received I had to volunteer. There was a list on the [EMU] website of places I could volunteer. And I saw there was a program at a middle school where I could help kids do their homework, not as a private tutor but as a homework helper. I said, okay, sounds good. I had never heard of such a program. I showed up and fell in love with the students at Ypsilanti Middle School. I don’t know why. I always planned to go back to Detroit actually. It was something about those kids at that middle school and that program I worked with that I really, really, really connected with.
I would always tell those students, you are getting tutoring for free. I couldn’t believe that it was free and I was volunteering. One thing that always really impressed me about 826michigan was that there were so many individual people who were working for free and working so hard. These really dynamic people, who are working with 826michigan are volunteering because they want to and are willing to be part of something. It really encouraged me a lot.
[Education Director] Catherine Calabro told me, you know, you should apply for the Program Assistant position. When I applied for the job at 826michigan I’d probably volunteered all of two months. I think what solidified me was that –I just felt a part of it. I was not afraid to get involved with the kids; I wasn’t afraid to be relatable. I just kind of jumped in, it felt normal. I felt like I was doing what I was supposed to be doing.
That project allowed me to really see the inner workings of 826michigan and how it all comes together. As a volunteer I showed up and I left. When I was staff I was meeting families, I was going to community events, I was able to mingle, I worked in Ann Arbor!. I had never been to downtown Ann Arbor before I worked at 826michigan. I went to fundraising events, and I loved that piece of it. I felt a part of something bigger than me–like I had to do my part.
Going into the role I was informed we had to do a book project, and I’d never written books with kids. But I said, I guess I have to do it. That project was such a labor of love. Just going through the process of working with middle school students who don’t even want to be at school after school — to make them write and edit, and revise, and do it again–add these words and take this out. It showed me their perseverance and how young people are so resilient, more than they would even know. That book project made me feel like I earned my stripes with 826michigan. We did a book! I love having the physical copy of the book, it’s a real mark of pride for me. I have the book in my classroom [at Ypsilanti Community Middle School] and when my students ask about it, I say, I co-wrote the book with those kids. Those kids are in tenth grade now. And some of my own students know them. It sometimes shocks them, that their peers are in this book. The book definitely lives on.
826michigan has solidified itself in the community. 826michigan is like a household name at my school and I think here in Ypsilanti. If you’ve never heard of 826michigan it’s kind of like, where have you been? It’s so normal, it’s part of the community and culture in Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor.
My feeling is that now is the best time for 826michigan to go to Detroit. So many people are investing and believing again in Detroit. People are building up this pride in the City of Detroit. It’s like the phoenix–it’s coming back. But, slow and steady wins the race. It’s so important to build up the networks in the schools. In ten years I hope we will be talking about 826michigan in Detroit the way we’re talking about 826michigan in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti.
At 19, 826michigan gave me purpose. I knew what I wanted to do but had no idea how I would get there. 826michigan showed me how to ride the wave, because so much of my life now came from my time there — the reason why I am a teacher now is because of 826michigan. I was just doing what I was supposed to be doing. I didn’t know I would get hired, that I would connect with teachers and counselors as a volunteer. Now as a co-worker, they remember and accept me.
At times when I thought college was too difficult, I had this little community that I had established in Ypsilanti through 826michigan. I remember bringing my mom to the robot store in Ann Arbor, the office. She had no idea that was how it was. She was so surprised! She was like, wow, you’ve really made a little life for yourself. Going to game nights and bot caroling was really rooted in being a volunteer.
I could say I’m thankful–and I am grateful–but my true gratitude could only be illustrated in my service for the next 50 years. It’s why I’m still in this community. It really affected me. All of the people I was connected with, all of the great opportunities I’ve received, pretty much came from my volunteering and then being a Program Assistant. When co-writing the anthology, What to Call the Place I Call Home, with students almost five years ago, I never thought the place I would call home would be Ypsilanti, but it is indeed. That’s in large part due to my work with 826michigan. There’s no one story for 826michigan. I didn’t see it coming by far.
A few months ago when we honored Carol Knight-Drain, I wrote a bit about how her foundation’s gifts to 826michigan had fostered a work climate that was remarkably happy, healthy, and efficient. I thought about that again when I spoke to Savannah about how her time as a volunteer at 826michigan led directly to a stint on the staff which led directly to her entry into the workforce as a teacher. Like Savannah, I joined 826michigan as a full-time staff member in 2011; I also came from the volunteer corps. And like Savannah, I’ve since left 826michigan but continue to connect with its mission. I too credit 826michigan with so much that is important to me in my current life.
When Savannah and I talked, we talked a bit about how 826michigan has functioned in the lives of very young people like we were when we worked there–college students and immediate post-grads. For us, 826michigan was a place to productively channel our energies and, one might even say, our anxieties about the big questions like, “how will I do what I want to do in this world?”. This organization gives us a way to convert those idealistic tendencies into concrete, observable, positive, productive action. That aspect of 826michigan, as we see with Savannah’s story and mine, is personally valuable not only for its potential future benefits in the workplace but also for the way it helped us find a purpose. It gave us a place to be.
As Savannah so rightly says, there’s no one story for 826michigan. Next month we’ll hear another, from one of the teachers who opened the door to 826michigan in Detroit.
Amy Wilson is a writer living in New York City. From 2010-2014, she was a member of 826michigan’s staff.