More than words

A labor of love for Wynnewood’s Tim Whitaker, Mighty Writers empowers kids. By Jim Waitzer.

Naiesha writes on a board and awaits the verdict. A simple “good job” from her tutor sets off a mini-celebration. A little girl with big eyes and bountiful energy, Naiesha has spelled the words correctly and knows their meaning. They cling to her as surely as the barrette in her hair.

Young people study at nearby tables amid stuffed bookshelves and images of Superman, Spiderman and President Barack Obama on the wall. One bulletin board features youth poetry, another sports essays written by middle-schoolers about their role models. In an adjoining room, students pore over computer screens and click away.

At Mighty Writers’ homey clubhouse-cum-workshop at 15th and Christian streets in Philadelphia, the aim is to educate a new generation in an overwhelmingly digital age. “When you write with clarity; you think with clarity,” says director Tim Whitaker.

A longtime journalist in the area who Jives in Wynnewood, Whitaker launched Mighty Writers in the summer of 2009 after a 14-year run as editor of Philadelphia Weekly. “I wanted a way to reinvent myself,» he says.

If necessity were always the mother of invention, society would place a higher priority on basic reading and writing. “There’s a growing gap between the essential needs of our businesses and the fundamental skills of our people, «states a 2009 study by the Philadelphia Workforce Investment Board, which found more than half of the city’s adults to be «low literate” or worse. “We have not invested the necessary resources for our people to keep pace.”

There’s no hint of bureaucracy at Mighty Writers — just enthusiasm and a sense of forward motion. Grad students, interns, retirees and even the unemployed keep its furnace stoked.

Making judicious use of grant money, donations, some 300 volunteers and its four staffers, Mighty Writers provides a shot in the arm to beleaguered schools. Such programs are not always greeted warmly by school districts, but Mighty Writers has been a neighborhood hit since settling into its brick-and-stucco headquarters. The building is owned by Philly music giant Kenny Gamble, who grew up nearby and has worked tirelessly to revitalize the surrounding neighborhood. His Universal Institute Charter School is just a block away.

Seventy-five kids signed up when the doors opened more than two years ago, and that number has most likely topped 1,000 by now. They come from public and parochial schools, some from as far away as Ardmore and Chestnut Hill. Even top-ranked institutions like the Julia R. Masterman School participate.

Whitaker characterizes his Mighty Writers as a “mix of kids,” though 90 percent are black. “There’s been great parent involvement, and word-of-mouth,” he says, adding that he hopes to attract children from North and West Philadelphia in the near future. “Where we are now is the perfect prototype. You need a safe, accessible neighborhood. You need a certain amount of space and a good layout.”

And a staff who will gladly roll up their sleeves. “I’ve gotten good with the power drill,” says development director Maggie Leyman, who also crafts grant proposals.

The Citizens Bank, Claneil, Knight, Lenfest, and Fels foundations have all given to Mighty Writers, and volunteers pick up where the money leaves off. Under program director Rachel Loeper, an army of high-school interns, grad students, retirees and the out-of-work keeps the Mighty Writers furnace stoked. There’s no hint of bureaucracy here — just enthusiasm and a sense of forward motion.

“It’s all about inspiring kids to write,” says Whitaker.

Born in Philadelphia, Tim Whitaker is a Villanova University graduate. He taught grade school, then sold advertising for the Germantown Courier before shifting to the weekly’s editorial side.

A stint with an Allentown monthly preceded two years at the helm of Pittsburgh magazine in the early 1980s. Then it was back to Philadelphia for freelance work from the Inquirers Sunday magazine. His profile of radio personality Joey Reynolds led to a head-writing gig on the DJ’s talk show for an NBC station in New York, where Whitaker wrote copy at celebrity-studded Rockefeller Center.

In 1988, Whitaker focused on a celebrity of a different stripe, devoting a year to write a biography of former Phillies’ slugger/lightning-rod Dick Allen. “He was a rebel,” says the biographer of the first-baseman, who clashed with fans at Connie Mack Stadium. “You either loved him or hated him.”

The project overlapped his new post as editor of the late, lamented PhillySport, a classy magazine whose budget outstripped its circulation. Then, a hoops buddy directed him to a magazine opening in Naples, Fla. But paradise had its shortcomings: After a few years at Gulfshore Life, he missed Philly’s pop and snarl — and its culture.

Rack in Center City, Whitaker joined the weekly Welcomat as new publisher Michael Cohen was changing the name to Philadelphia Weekly and its editorial profile to longer, staff-written articles. The expanded newspaper attracted a wider readership and improved its bottom line, variables that eventually came under pressure as upheavals in the newspaper industry squeezed advertising dollars. When Whitaker left the paper in 2008, critics charged that his leadership had been on the wane. In truth, PW had continued to win journalism awards.

If Whitaker was somewhat fatigued by the long hours and financial troubles of the newspaper business, he quickly found restoration. In San Francisco, he observed writer Dave Eggers’ nonprofit 826 Valencia literacy project in action around the city’s Mission District and left with a new personal mission. “I wanted to adapt Eggers’ program to Philadelphia,” says Whitaker of 826’s volunteer-rich, street-front concept. “After I saw Rachel Loeper’s flyers, we met and very quickly joined forces.”

A creative writing teacher, Loeper had been living in Bucks County and had recently moved to Center City. Similarly inspired by Eggers’ efforts, she’d recruited about 150 volunteers and obtained a rent- free offer for use of the building at 15th and Christian. By this time, Whitaker had secured startup funds for Mighty Writers.

“The partnership made perfect sense,” says Loeper.

In spring 2009, the two of them reached out to schools, distributed leaflets at recreation centers, and scrubbed floors and windows to prepare for a summer opening. Mighty Writers has since grown to the building’s second floor, where college pennants and sketches of baseball heroes fill the walls of the main room, and a pool table converts to ping-pong or study space for the older kids. Several other smaller rooms on both floors are filled with computers.

At 641 South St., the organization has added a second site dedicated to comic-book writing taught by professional illustrators and creators. “Mightyvision” capitalizes on a medium that grabs kids. Backed by Colorado’s Sheila Fortune Foundation, Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens and the Citizens Bank Foundation, the space includes a gallery of student work.

Elsewhere, memoir-writing workshops strike a deeply personal chord. Run by a University of the Arts grad, “To the Beat” finds the rhythm in both writing and music. “Stage to Page” uses acting and group play to build stories.

On a larger scale, the Knight Arts Challenge has awarded $50,000 in matching funds for Mighty Writers to create a multimedia history of black radio in Philadelphia. “The goal is to have our own Internet station,” says Whitaker.

Mighty Writers also offers SAT prep and sportswriting classes, a summertime “Garden Writing” club, “Girl Power Poetry” and other activities both hip and constructive. The writing is analyzed by a Web-based diagnostic program that reflects national guidelines. “We want to verify that they’re becoming better writers -and that we’re not kidding ourselves,” says Whitaker.

Meanwhile, feedback amplifies and encourages. “The tutors are still the secret sauce that makes it all work,” Loeper says.

The recipe has attracted interest on the Main Line. Local PR consultant Tina Breslow was captivated by the Mighty Writers concept and contacted Whitaker, whose name she recognized from his byline. The owners of the Berwyn eatery, Nectar, happen to be Breslow’s clients, and they shared her enthusiasm. Sometime this summer, the restaurant will host a fundraiser with cocktails and a selection of hors d’oeuvres from Nectar’s award- winning chef, Patrick Feury.

Villanova-based psychotherapist Lyn Groome also embraces Mighty Writers. Her work as a reading specialist and a member of the community advisory board at the University of Pennsylvania’s Netter Center has shaped her interest in inner-city education. In that spirit, she’s been involved with Mighty Writers since its inception. “I’m a sounding board, an idea pitcher,” says Groome.

As for Whitaker, he’s still a part-time journalist, profiling sports figures for Philadelphia magazine. But most of his time is spent providing ways for kids to win in a different arena. Seems the old editor has recruited a new batch of writers.

To learn more about Mighty Writers, visit rnightywriters.org.

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