On busy Venice Boulevard in Mar Vista, a quirky storefront boasts robot milk and dinosaur eggs. Step inside and you’ll find witty t-shirts, an emergency mummy kit, and even a theremin. But enter through a small doorway toward the back, and you’ll discover a warmly lit room full of books, long tables, and schoolchildren with tutors.
This is 826LA’s Time Travel Mart and tutoring center. Twelve years ago, the organization began in a small Venice office with a few eager volunteers. Today, two bustling centers in Mar Vista and Echo Park (each with their own unique Time Travel Mart), a Writers’ Room in Manual Arts High School, and relationships with over 100 local schools have changed the lives of thousands of students.
826LA focuses on developing writing skills, closing each homework tutoring session with a writing activity. Stories and poems are periodically compiled into books, which are proudly displayed in the tutoring center and are for sale in the Time Travel Marts.
The driving force behind 826LA’s success is their robust network of 3,000 trained volunteers ranging in age from 16 to over 80. One in five volunteers is over 50, and 826LA sees great potential in recruiting even more.
“Our goal is to get students excited about learning and writing,” said Lauren Humphrey, 826LA’s Volunteer Manager. “This is about modeling behavior and learning alongside students. And senior volunteers are not afraid to say ‘I don’t know how to do this’ or ‘it’s been a while since I’ve done this, let’s figure it out.’”
The benefits of these intergenerational connections go both ways. Silver is 83 years old and has been volunteering at 826LA’s Mar Vista location for almost two years following her retirement as an English teacher. “I felt like I was without any purpose,” she said. But once her daughter suggested she volunteer, she’s felt valuable once more. “I have quite a full bank of understanding and history. It keeps me in touch with children, which I like very much, because it brings my inner child out.”
Silver has seen firsthand the importance of developing long-term relationships with her students. “These children come from difficult backgrounds, so it’s very hard sometimes to get in, to create trust. If they see you regularly, they finally build a certain kind of trust. Today when I walked in, a little girl who got here before me said hi to me. It was very reassuring because I don’t even have her at my usual table. But she knows that I’m here.”
Eight-year-old Jennifer sees Silver regularly. Though she’s quiet and shy, Silver brings her out of her shell. “Sometimes older people know a lot because they have studied their whole lives,” Jennifer said. “Silver is kind, very friendly, very smart. Sometimes, when I’m struggling, she helps me.”
But to foster these intergenerational relationships, 826LA has had to think about their senior volunteers in different ways.
“Our projects calendar is online, volunteers sign up for shifts online, they get email reminders, and that’s just part of being a nonprofit in 2017,” said Humphrey. “We need to remember that seniors access information differently.” While they’ve adjusted by calling these volunteers to keep them engaged, they’re also seeing seniors getting more tech savvy. “Five years ago I never would have heard an older volunteer say ‘I loved that blog post’ but now I do!”
Humphrey also now takes into consideration noise level and lighting for the older volunteers. “Now we know if we have an older volunteer coming in, we’ll seat them in the front so it’s easier for them to see and hear,” she said. “Often older volunteers also won’t drive after a certain time. But fortunately having activities all day, we can accommodate them and adjust their schedules as needed—we can pivot them into other programs to keep them.”
These efforts are more than worth it to keep senior volunteers coming back. “They’re just a well of understanding and forgiveness and patience, everything I think a tutor needs to be,” Humphrey said. “When you’re 83 and you’ve been through a lot, that’s exactly what you’ve developed.”
“They just have a good understanding of what it means to be a kind human, and that’s all we need.”
The Eisner Foundation is proud to support 826LA’s ongoing efforts to recruit more senior volunteers.