Every June for the past five years, 826LA has hosted an annual gala that centers around the nonprofit organization’s students and their stories, along with celebrity guests and great food.
Last year, approximately 350 people attended and more than $600,000 was raised for the nonprofit writing and tutoring programs. Due to the pandemic this year’s gala, “Changing the Story,” will be virtual on June 3. It will also celebrate a special milestone: 826LA’s 15-year anniversary.
“This year’s theme is the past, present and future as we’re celebrating 15 years of 826LA,” said Cheryl Klein, 826LA’s development and communications manager.
“This year it will be very different, but we’ve been excited about the talent who have signed on to read work by our students and talk about their own creative process.”
The 2020 gala will be hosted by comedian Al Madrigal and will feature a star-studded ensemble of celebrities, including Mindy Kaling, Kumail Nanjiani, Emily V. Gordon, Constance Wu and Keegan-Michael Key—all of whom will be reading stories by 826LA’s students.
“The pieces by our younger students tend to be short and delightfully weird—getting trapped inside a phone, sentient hamburgers, emotional lemurs,” Klein said. “Our high school students tend to write about their lives, which often include some pretty intense challenges, like immigration, poverty and struggling to belong, along with incredible hope and resilience. And these times definitely call for hope and resilience.”
Like other organizations, 826LA was forced to pivot both its programs and its fundraising strategy in the wake of COVID-19. Within weeks of school closures, the organization had contacted hundreds of families and volunteers to assess their needs, and relaunched programs in virtual form.
“Our mission hasn’t changed, but our methods have changed a lot, needless to say,” Klein said. “We now have online tutoring and workshops, but we also have writing prompts for teachers who are struggling in this environment and a bilingual resource hub for families, where they can find out about things like how to get free internet access. A silver lining of our COVID-19 response is that now certain programs that were available only to LA students are available to everyone via our Virtual Hub.”
The 826 Network started in 2002 when writer Dave Eggers teamed up with educator Ninive Calegari to start a creative space where students from under-resourced communities could get one-on-one writing and tutoring support from volunteers. Proving to be a successful model, it expanded to Los Angeles in 2005.
“We have writing centers on the Westside and the Eastside, plus Writers’ Rooms on the campuses of Manual Arts High School in South LA and Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights,” Klein shared. “Our programs include tutoring, workshops, field trips, in-school projects and college access support. Our curriculum ranges from silly to serious, and students range from 6 to 18—but the through line is a belief in amplifying student voices with one-on-one support from trained volunteers.”
Anyone who makes a donation toward the fundraiser can stream the event live at 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 3. The “red carpet” portion of the event featuring guests in 826LA shirts and pajamas starts at 6:30 p.m. To date, $409,476 has been raised.
“We know times are hard, but we are really grateful to people who say, ‘I have a little extra and I’m going to share it,’” Klein said. “We are also always looking for volunteers. We have easy trainings to help people get acquainted with virtual volunteering.”