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Creative nonprofit 826 Boston puts the 'fun' in fundraising

Posted by Alex Pearlman  March 31, 2012 09:32 AM

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826 moustache-a-thon.JPGBy Katie Lannan

Chris McClelland has a trick to keep his fledgling mustache dark and glossy.

“The secret to my mustache is actually my girlfriend’s mascara,” he said, taking a break from facial hair trivia during the final weekly “weigh-in” of the fourth annual 826 Boston Moustache-a-Thon. “I have a feeling a lot of people have techniques like that.”

McClelland is a two-time winner of the Peach Fuzz Cup, the first award of the six-week Moustache-a-Thon, but he’s also a volunteer tutor at 826 Boston, a non-profit organization dedicated to strengthening the writing skills and creativity of students between the ages of 6 and 18.

One of eight chapters nationwide, 826 Boston works specifically with youths living in a two-mile radius of their Egleston Square location, providing free tutoring, summer camps, field trips, and workshops. Their programs are all based on the idea that effective expository and creative writing skills are the key to future success. Since first opening their doors in 2007, 826 Boston has reached more than 1,500 students and provided more than 15,000 hours of one-on-one tutoring.

And, as evidenced by the Moustache-a-Thon -- which this year raised over $15,000, enough to fund a year of after-school tutoring for 15 students or to pay for the publication of four books written by those students -- you can't expect an organization dedicated to fostering creativity to allow even the financing of their programs to be boring. 826 Boston is also home to The Greater Boston Bigfoot Research Institute, a whimsical storefront selling not only books written by their students but also unicorn tears and cryptozoological supplies. 826 Boston's volunteers and students seek out the fantastical in everything from writing to mythological creatures to facial hair.

Working off the same principle as a walkathon or telethon, the Moustache-a-Thon is a fundraiser that helps 826 Boston maintain their free writing programs, which over 2,000 Boston Public School students take advantage of each year. Participants collect pledges in honor of their handlebars, Dalís, and Fu Manchus and track their progress at weekly weigh-ins. Prizes -- like the Peach Fuzz Cup, which honors the competitor with the most money raised before the competition’s official start -- are awarded to top growers.

“It’s supposed to be all about the kids and the cause, but really, it’s all about the mustache,” McClelland said jokingly. He and the rest of 826 Boston’s approximately 2,000 volunteers really are out to help the kids.

“All of the volunteers that we have are fantastic and work very hard,” said Raquel Kaplan, 826 Boston’s volunteer coordinator. “They do -- oh my gosh -- so many things. They dress up in costume for the field trips, pretending they’re part of the publishing industry.”

With volunteers acting out the parts of the timid typist and the nervous illustrator, students spend a morning creating, illustrating, and publishing original stories after another volunteer posing as a cranky and mysterious publishing executive explains his pressing need for new books by the afternoon. Each student provides his or her own ending for the tale.

“At the end of it, all the kids go home with a book they produce,” said Sara Skolnick, the organization’s events coordinator. “It’s really awesome.”

The kids leave with a tangible product as well as inspiration, but 826 Boston volunteers say they get something out of it, too.

“When you’re there and you see the children, they always just make you laugh,” McClelland said. “It gives you a different perspective from just sitting in a cube all day.”

Photo by Melissa Pocek

About Katie -- Currently a Brookline resident and BU senior, I grew up in New Hampshire, meaning I get confused when charged sales tax and can discuss at length the differences between multiple varieties of apples. At any given moment, I likely have my iPhone in my hand and at least one newspaper in my purse. I'm a political junkie, as well as an iced coffee addict. My interests include journalism, canvas sneakers, and pretending I'm in Ireland.

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