Karen Heller: Mighty Writers spread love of books to the young

Zipporiah Mooney, 10, works with tutor Nick Ruskoski at the Mighty Writers office at 15th and Christian.
Zipporiah Mooney, 10, works with tutor Nick Ruskoski at the Mighty Writers office at 15th and Christian. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 21, 2013

Tiaira Rodgers has a sweet sparrow of a voice but knows how to make herself heard in print.

"I feel like some adults think, 'Oh . . . they're just kids, they don't know anything,' but that's not true," she wrote. "I'm a Philadelphian, I know what goes on here. I understand that if one person suffers, we all can suffer. If one person succeeds we all can succeed."

Mighty Writers, a grand name, is a rec center for the mind. The passage is from her "Letter to Philadelphia," a testament of hope. Tiaira, now 17, came to Mighty Writers when it opened three years ago. The bright, busy corner former storefront in South Philadelphia has been her second home ever since.

"I learned how to express my feelings," Tiaira told me. "I learned how to be brave."

Mighty Writers is the inspired dream of Tim Whitaker, a recovering journalist. His vision is spectacular yet real. "We want the kids to think clearly and write with clarity," he said, sitting in a second-floor study area brimming with comic books. "We're not trying to turn them into writers. Our thinking is, you make enough smart decisions, you make yourself a life."

At Mighty Academy, students in grades two through eight arrive after school and complete homework before launching into creative projects like writing letters to a hero. There are computers for students who lack them at home, and night workshops for older teens. A second location at 15th and South specializes in new media, blogging, and Web projects like an audio history of Philadelphia black radio. Mighty Writers offers a robust SAT program and hosts college visits.

Now, 1,500 young writers, ages 7 to 17, stream through Mighty Writers each year, feasting on language and popcorn. For all the organization does, the budget is comparatively small, a half-million from foundations, grants, and donations. Mighty Writers' secret weapon is a joyous battalion of 300 volunteers, who range in age from high school to grandma.

"The biggest myth that's come down is that parents don't care about their kids' education," Whitaker said. "That's been completely disproved to me. They're always buttonholing me at 6 o'clock asking about their children."

Donated new books flood in. "Tattered just isn't Mighty," the mightywriters.org website advises. Students are encouraged to take them home, not borrow, to get used to books furnishing a room, a life.

This summer, Mighty Writers will open in West Philadelphia, at 39th and Lancaster, one step closer to Whitaker's dream of having a small constellation of centers. Only North Philadelphia remains.

Mighty Writers accepts students on an open-door policy, so the writing ability varies. "The trick is to get a real diversity of academic skills," Whitaker said. "You get that mix then everyone is lifted."

Christian Precise - truly, that's her glorious name - is one of those students who lift all boats. The talented Masterman eighth grader loves writing. Cats are her specialty.

She's worked one-on-one with her mentor, copywriter Kishwer Barrica, for a year. "Christian is the highlight of my week," said Barrica, 27. "We set goals. Look at what's holding us back, and keep each other accountable." Together, they read the Steve Jobs memoir and work on rewriting Christian's stories to submit to student magazines.

Most school days, there are few places busier and happier than the northwest corner of 15th and Christian. "That's why people keep coming back," development director Maggie Leyman told me. "There's a lot of fun going on." As Whitaker noted, "We're good and free." Works every time.

"Take my advice; it would be good for the people of Philadelphia if we helped one another, kids and adults," Tiaira wrote in her letter. "A lot of people don't realize that you don't see a change until you make a change yourself."

Contact Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter at @kheller.

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