What's New at 826 National

Monday, March 2, 2015

Volunteer Spotlight: Jeni Crone

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How did you first got involved with 826CHI? At the beginning of my final year of art school I dropped a class on the Global Economy and decided to look for an internship that engaged my interest in education. I had always planned on becoming a teacher, but had made a decision to hold off on an Ed degree in undergrad in favor of focusing on my own education. Before a Google search for "creative writing education internship Chicago" I had never heard of 826. When I started I was thinking of it as "just an internship." I slowly fell in love, but never would have guessed how important 826 would become in my life.

What are some challenges you've faced while volunteering at 826?

I admit that I came in with a lot of social anxiety. There are certainly challenges in working with students, and ultimately I'm there for the students, but for a while I think I was missing out on what 826 offers in terms of the volunteer community. No matter how old you get, it can be hard to join a new crowd. 826 volunteers have come to be some of my closest friends, but I really tip-toed in. It's pretty cool to be part of such a large network of people invested in the education of young people.

When it comes to the challenges of working with students, fighting the " I'm bad at __________" myth will always be the greatest obstacle. I'm finishing my Master's in Teaching Art and I'm spending eight weeks with five Art 1 classes, and most of my students seemed to have picked up an idea that there is a limit to what they need to know, and that being "bad" at something means that there is no capacity to improve. I've been having these conversations with students at 826 for years, too, and do what I can to emphasize how the point of learning is to build skills and obtain knowledge where it previously wasn't--not to inherently know everything. The luck of 826 and it's programming is that maybe we can stamp out these ideas that hold back students before they become learned habits. 826 programs are engaging, maybe a little fun, and really a safe space for learning. I wish all students could have that experience.

In what ways have you seen the organization grow during your five and a half years at 826CHI?

There are few things that I know are big, like the move to our new space, and the adding of new staff positions making it possible to do bigger better things, and the creation of VEST (Volunteer Engagement Support Team) to help staff members create the best possible experience for volunteers. I've also seen a big shift in enhancing the quality of our student publications. Our professionally published books of student writing have come to be so exquisitely crafted--they are meticulously planned, beautifully designed, and really capture the value of the writing within them. Our After-School Tutoring chapbooks, have gone through a transformation, and efforts are being made across all programs to really step-up the quality of publications. I don't think being able to hold a beautiful book in your hands will ever lose its magic--especially if you are a newly published student author. Reading has become increasingly digital in the last five years, but when a student can hold their book, being an author feels more real.

Was there a specific experience while volunteering at 826 that resonated with you most?

Occasionally there will be a moment that really highlights how powerful writing can be as a process for guiding a student towards a new understanding. Or being there when a student learns something for the very first time. Or when something so magically creative shows up in a story (and when I've gotten to draw those things as a Field Trip Illustrator). But, one of the best moments I've experienced was being invited to a student's eighth birthday party. And it wasn't just about the joy of birthday parties. For many years at After School Tutoring we saw eight students that were part of an extended family. I had been watching them all grow up, and along with two 826 staff and another volunteer I was invited into their home for Karen's eighth birthday. That Karen admired the people who help her with reading and writing so much that she wanted us at her birthday party is a big deal, but in joining her family celebration it really hit how greatly an organization like 826 can affect an entire family.

What keeps you coming back to 826?

826CHI is what has made Chicago my home. I got to know neighborhoods by working on In-School projects and after working with students from hundreds of schools across programming, I feel committed to spending my career as an educator working with students and families within Chicago Public Schools. During my time as a volunteer I've navigated some crises of my early 20s, and there are a lot of things I've gotten through with the help of the friends I've made as part of the volunteer community, or just in knowing that there is a place that aligns with so much of what I believe in and when I volunteer I am engaged in doing something meaningful and inspiring. At this point I've given over 1,000 hours to 826, and having put so much of myself into this place, I'm not going to stop offering what I can to be part of its continued growth and to show my gratitude for everything 826 has given me.