826LA’s virtual gala celebrates youth writing program’s 15th anniversary with celebrity readers and guests

By Kamala Kirk

Actress, writer, producer and comedian Mindy Kaling is among the celebrity guests for 826LA’s online fundraiser and storytelling event
Photo courtesy of 826LA

Every June for the past five years, 826LA has hosted a 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 program, whose Victorian-style curiosities shop and Westside writing center are located in Mar Vista. Due to the pandemic and the eruption of George Floyd protests around the country this year’s early June gala, “Changing the Story,” was made virtual and postponed to stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. The rescheduled virtual fundraiser streams this Thursday (June 25), featuring live and recorded performances by celebrity guests. 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 writer-producer-comedian Mindy Kaling, Academy Award-winner Tom Hanks, “The Big Sick’s” Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, and comedians 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.”

The event streams at 7 p.m. on Thursday and is free to watch, but donations are encouraged.. To date, $483,585 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.”

A version of this story originally appeared in Los Angeles Downtown News, a Times Media Group sister publication of The Argonaut. Watch the stream at 7 p.m. June 25 at 826LA.org/changingthestory, where you can also make a donation. Follow @826LA on Instagram for updates.