The 826 way: an AmeriCorps member reflects on her year of service

By Desta Lissanu, pictured above working with students at Buena Vista Horace Mann

At 826 Valencia, we talk a lot about “the 826 way.” No one has successfully pinned down exactly what this means, but there’s no denying that there is a particular spirit that permeates this space. Maybe it’s the warmth between staff and volunteers, or perhaps it’s the unique project-based approach we employ in many of our programs. It might be the whimsy and wonder that characterize our writing prompts, not to mention our quirky pirate supply store. The 826 way means something different to everyone, but for me, it means that we’re continually looking for ways to leave our community, as well as the students that we serve, better than we found them.

As the AmeriCorps in-schools programs assistant, I wear a lot of hats. Mostly, this means I get to see the 826 way applied in many different settings. From managing in-schools projects to supporting the BVHM after-school program, as well as various projects in between, I have been fortunate to experience the breadth of 826 programming. September and October were focused on self-reflection, so we supported hundreds of students as they wrote memoirs, stories of self, and personal statements. The winter months brought a blur of editing chapbooks and other student publications. The Young Authors’ Book Project, which took place in January, provided the unique opportunity for me to work one-on-one with a ninth grader as he wrote about a belief he held dear. The spring, in turn, brought a flurry of persuasive writing projects. From oral histories to blog posts about important social issues, students wrote about topics that affect themselves, their loved ones, and their communities. And now it is May, when we celebrate a successful year’s work with release parties, publications, and much excitement.

This isn’t to say that there weren’t challenges. After recent events of police brutality around the country, the topic of oppression began to surface frequently in student writing and conversations. I wanted students to feel safe exploring this topic, as well as others like it, in their own writing. I also wanted tutors to feel comfortable supporting them as they did so, so I created a training about how to successfully negotiate conversations of race, gender, and identity with students. It’s been amazing to observe staff and volunteers engage with these issues as an 826 community, and I am proud that we’re continuing to take tangible steps to support students and amplify student voice.

Did I already mention that I have been so inspired by the students I have worked with this year? Because they have been the best part of my job. Their resilience, humor, wackiness, and enthusiasm shine through in their writing. From coaching high school seniors during Personal Statement Weekend to helping fourth graders write letters of advice at the Buena Vista Horace Mann Annex, I’ve seen even the most reluctant students bloom. And in the process of teaching and learning from students, as well as collaborating with my fantastic colleagues, I myself have been transformed. (And I’m not just talking about my newfound zeal for the oxford comma!) I have learned that individualized support can empower students and make them more comfortable putting their story out into the world. I have learned how powerful it can be to work with colleagues who encourage you to dream big and then help you execute your projects. Most importantly, this year has reinforced for me, again and again, that every student can learn. So thank you, beloved 826, for providing this incredible learning opportunity for me. It has been the highest privilege and the most fun to call you home this year.

Desta Lissanu has been an AmeriCorps member with 826 Valencia during the 2014–2015 school year, supporting our in-schools programming. Every year 826 Valencia brings on board four AmeriCorps support staff for a one-year term. They are an invaluable addition to our team, without whom we would not have the resources to reach as many students, support as many teachers, or publish the volume of student writing our programs produce. We are eternally grateful to all our AmeriCorps members for their dedicated service and the generosity of spirit they’ve shared with our students during their time here.

Read more about AmeriCorps opportunities with 826 Valencia.

*Photo by Lisa Beth Anderson