Light floods in through large windows and illuminates the open space. Empty tables and chairs wait in silence as the clock slowly counts down to 3:00. The books in the library rest, preparing for an afternoon of exploration in the hands of young, eager students. This is the Mid-Continent Oceanographic Institute—a local tutoring and writing development center that provides programming to local students ages 6-18. If you walked past the building on the corner of University and Raymond in St. Paul, you probably wouldn’t realize that this space is a hub for learning and academic growth. Unless a poster that advertises “free homework help” catches your eye, you’d probably continue your walk and completely miss the magic that is happening inside that building. But if you took a moment to peek through the windows on a weekday afternoon, you’d see students and adults reading, writing, and studying side-by-side. These students take advantage of the Mid-Continent Oceanographic Institute’s after-school tutoring hours, one of MOI’s programs that gives students the opportunity to build a strong academic and creative foundation for their future. MOI is a hidden gem in St. Paul, but a closer look at its programming and its participants prove that it’s on its way to becoming a crown jewel of St. Paul’s development.
The Organization: Mid-Continent Oceanographic Institute
The Mid-Continent Oceanographic Institute (MOI) grew out of Rock Star Supply Company (RSS Co.), which was created in 2009 by Macalester College graduates Holly Muñoz and Heather Riddle. Inspired by the work of Dave Eggers and his 826 Valencia project (the first location of what is now a national organization with 8 chapter locations), Muñoz and Riddle joined with other “musically-minded” people to start a program that would improve the educational experiences of local students. Beginning as in-school tutoring for St. Paul students, RSS Co. connected creative and quirky adults with students who needed extra help in the classroom at local schools. Current Executive Director Chad Kampe explains, “We started tutoring with all these cool folks who are musicians and artists who may not look like they would help kids, but they can, and they do.” They’re rock stars in interest, ability, and desire to give back to students.
The success of the organization brought new leadership, a new space, and a new name. In the summer of 2013, Chad Kampe took the reins as Executive Director of RSS Co. As a graduate of Macalester College and Columbia College, Chad worked as a teacher before returning to Minnesota with his husband. During his teaching career at the Friends School, Chad was named the GLAAD Teacher of the Year for his curriculum on sexuality, health, and reproduction. Chad was hired as the Executive Director in July, with the intent of expanding the services RSS Co. would be able to provide. Joining Chad in this adventure was Ariel Sehr (another Macalester College graduate), who took on the role of Associate Director through the Americorps VISTA program.
In September, RSS Co. opened its doors on the corner of University and Raymond in St. Paul, announcing its arrival into the neighborhood with a sign reading “Free Homework Help” and now provides after-school tutoring and writing workshops in the space. Just recently, Rock Star Supply Company began rebranding as the Mid-Continent Oceanographic Institute (MOI)—a name that will hopefully raise the interest and curiosity of our land-locked citizens. Chad describes that the name change will “allow us to focus on more areas that are exciting to kids. We’ll have the whole science piece and the mythological piece. People travelling by might wonder why people would be studying the ocean in the middle of Minnesota. We hope that curiosity will draw them in.” If people do venture into the future storefront of MOI, they will find all sorts of funny, ocean-themed items that can be purchased to support MOI’s work. Chad “sees the storefront as a portal” for people to discover the magic that really happens at MOI, a branding, visibility, and fundraising model that has worked well for the 826 National branches, the first of which was the Pirate Store at 826 Valencia in San Francisco.
It’s important to note that MOI’s programming is inspired by the 826 model, but MOI is not presently affiliated with 826 National. With the help of 826 National, MOI is currently working toward becoming an official 826 National Chapter. Chad notes, “Our programming is inspired by the 826 model, and we are currently progressing in the first phase of the 826 National Chapter Development Process. 826 National is pleased with our progress, and we are in regular communication with the organization as we continue along this trajectory toward our goal of joining the 826 National Network.” MOI’s progress will continue; plans to create a storefront and increase the number of participants are underway. Receiving the 826 National status would allow them to serve more students and invest more time in tutoring and writing workshops. It also would allow MOI to hire more staff members, enlist the help of more volunteers, and create partnerships with schools to formally publish original student work through “field trip” workshops. Even though the future is bright for MOI, receiving recognition as an official chapter of 826 National would provide even more opportunities for student growth.
Currently, MOI is able to carry out its work through the generosity of private donors and foundation grants. Included in MOI’s list of supporting foundations are the Mithun Family Foundation, the Sauer Children’s Renew Fund, and the Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund. MOI also receives support through a partnership with the St. Paul Public School System, which provides snacks for the after-school students. Though these generous gifts make MOI’s current programs possible, more financial support is needed to continue and expand programming.
MOI’s programming provides after-school tutoring for under-resourced youth, and no one is turned away. The majority of students drop in to the center daily to receive homework help and to practice their reading and writing. Students are encouraged to follow the daily writing prompt that is posted on the wall (after homework is completed, of course) and are then allowed to type up their stories on one of MOI’s new Mac computers. MOI also provides in-school tutoring all day on Fridays at a number of St. Paul schools, allowing more students to have access to tutoring. The new location has allowed MOI to triple the amount of tutoring hours provided to students in the area, and this demand is only expected to increase as more people learn about the program.
In addition to tutoring, students are invited to attend special writing workshops that focus on a variety of projects (past themes include monster writing, college essay writing, and English Language Learners poetry exploration). Chad believes that the writing component of MOI “gives students the creative outlet that they don’t necessarily receive in schools. Because many teachers have to work and plan for the [national standardized] tests, the teachers don’t have the time to develop creative writing skills. They develop specific writing skills, but this gives them the chance to promote literacy and get students excited for writing.”
The final component of MOI’s programming is possibly the most pertinent: the ever-increasing number of dedicated volunteer tutors from the Twin Cities area. The volunteers are college students, adult professionals, retirees, young people from the “creative enterprise” area surrounding MOI’s location, and board members who have been volunteering since the organization began. Ariel describes many of the tutors as people with cool, hip jobs and flexible schedules, saying “the idea of the volunteer is anyone who is engaged and willing to work in high school. You can be a part of a quirky, cool community and still help kids.”
Tutoring is a very small time commitment each week, but only 90 minutes makes a big difference in the eyes of a student. Chad notes, “Our tutors enjoy it because they form relationships with the kids. It’s fulfilling, and it’s just a really good way to give back. We have one of the top achievement gaps in Minnesota, so this is a good way for people to feel like they’re actually doing something to fix it instead of just talking about it.”
The Volunteers: Katie Lorenz-Walraven
As one of MOI’s most involved volunteers, Katie Lorenz-Walraven does her part to help kids succeed in school. When Katie and her wife moved to Minnesota from Massachusetts, she started to look for work in urban education and was connected to MOI through a friend who knew Katie’s educational experience. She began tutoring in November, picking up shifts on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. Being a tutor allowed her to utilize the skills and training she already had, and she has since been able to observe the continued success of the students she tutors.
When she is at MOI, Katie works with a couple of students on a regular basis. The consistency allows her to follow-up about assignments and longer projects, and it allows the students to feel more comfortable with their tutor. Though she spends the majority of her time with the same students, she also floats around and checks in with others. “I’ll go wherever I’m needed,” she says, whether that means reading with someone, helping a student on computers, or assisting Chad and Ariel with office duties. Her willingness to tackle new challenges with students makes her a valuable asset to MOI.
Katie’s approach to tutoring is simple—she lets her true personality shine through. “I’m just myself when I’m with them—sarcastic and fun. And if they pick up on it, great. If they don’t, that’s ok. But talking to them—not as a teacher or as a parent, but as someone who is potentially more knowledgeable (and sometimes not!) on some stuff—allows them to become more comfortable with an adult who begins as a stranger.” Though she describes her favorite tutoring subjects as “anything but math,” she is always willing to learn alongside a student to help them grasp the material and complete assignments. With more advanced subjects, Katie shows the students how she learns—by reading all the materials, looking through directions, and practicing skills—and encourages them to do the same. She adds, “I try to teach them that, even if I don’t know something, they still need to take the time to learn. I’ve had to learn with them for some subjects…I’ve stumbled through some math stuff that was an accomplishment when the student and I were solving problems separately and checking with each other. We finally started to get the same answers!”
Katie’s favorite part about volunteering at MOI is seeing the students grow and develop. She notes, “I love to watch how the kids have progressed—academically and socially. Some kids would come, and they would be really upset that they were here. Now, because this place has grown and listened to what the students need…their excitement builds, and they are almost more excited to do their homework because we have a lot of other activities for them to do once they’re done.” Katie recalls the progress of one particular student who was not engaged and was set on isolating himself. Through his continued experiences at MOI, he has become more engaged, and his social anxiety has improved tremendously. But the benefits of this student’s experience don’t end at MOI’s door. Katie believes that the confidence and interpersonal skills he has developed will help him in other social situations he may encounter.
As an out lesbian, Katie has learned how to navigate conversations about GLBT issues with kids. She says, “Most of the time, the GLBT issue comes up because they think I am a kid. They’ll ask me if I have to go home because my mom’s making dinner, and I’ll tell them I’m married.” Though most kids think nothing of it, there are times when students have expressed discomfort for Katie’s lifestyle. Katie then is able to turn those situations into teaching moments, and now most students inquire about her life with her wife. Katie believes that this visibility and open dialogue is good for both the students and the GLBT community.
In the future, Katie will continue to volunteer with special events at MOI as she tackles her next project: a position in Volunteers of America’s MAP program. She hopes that MOI will continue to grow and improve the educational experiences of local students. She adds, “I hope they have kids waiting out the door to be placed with tutors. I hope all the seats are filled. This place is so calming and quiet; the atmosphere here is fantastic. It’s nice to be in an academic setting that’s not stressful at all.”
The Families: Betsy Bateman
MOI and its tutors have had a profound impact on many families in the area, especially Betsy Bateman and her three children. Betsy learned about MOI through a school orientation day when her 13-year-old triplets were starting Junior High. Betsy notes, “The triplets kind of struggled in their first term. We started coming here in November, and they now come several times per week…I was just thrilled to find this place. It’s so easily accessible and open to anyone who walks in the door.” Since beginning their tutoring, Betsy has noticed some remarkable improvements in the triplets’ academic and social lives.
After only a few months at MOI, Betsy noticed that the triplets’ grades went up, and they were getting their homework done more consistently. It seemed as though they were completing their tasks with a more positive mindset. She adds, “I think they just feel more relaxed about what they’re doing and how they approach tasks.” In addition to seeing academic improvements, Betsy’s children have been able to find a social outlet that is safe and encouraging. She notes, “My kids are shy, soft-spoken, and very sweet. They need someone to help draw them out, and I think they get that here in a very gentle way.” The triplets have been able to use their time at MOI to connect with other students from their school and form friendships they might not have otherwise.
In addition to the academic improvements she’s seen, Betsy enjoys how focused MOI is on writing. During her time at MOI, Betsy’s daughter wrote a story which was proudly displayed on the wall. Betsy notes, “It’s a creative and fun way for them to continue to learn more about writing and organizing ideas. Sometimes at school, there are certain things they have to get done. But here, there’s more flexibility with what they need to do and how they approach it.”
Betsy’s triplets will continue to utilize the services at MOI, and she encourages other parents do so as well. Betsy hopes that more students come to MOI in the future because she thinks “they really provide affirmation for kids. They provide a lot of good feedback about their efforts to learn and grow, and I hope more students have more of an opportunity to have that in their lives.”
What You Can Do: Volunteer, Donate, Celebrate!
As MOI continues to grow, the support it receives from our community also must grow. There are many ways for everyone to invest in these students, whether it’s through giving time or money. Here are a few opportunities to lend a hand.
If you like working with kids, consider volunteering for after-school tutoring or for a special workshop. The time commitment for after-school tutoring is just 90 minutes per week. Katie Lorenz-Walraven encourages everyone to try tutoring, saying, “Just do it. Most people can walk in and be comfortable tutoring all the way up into high school level. The kids say really funny and crazy things, and that’s part of the joy.” Currently, MOI is noticing an increased need for tutors who are multilingual, as many students come from East African backgrounds. If you can’t commit to a weekly time slot, look into assisting with a special writing workshop or summer session. These workshops can focus on anything, from writing “monster stories” to exploring poetry as English Language Learners. Leading a workshop is a great way to share your expertise through creative activities.
For people who don’t have time but have some spare change, MOI is in great need of monetary support. In addition to building costs and daily supplies, donations pay for new books for their library, materials for hands-on activities, and everything else that is required to assist students on a daily basis. Simply choose something off of MOI’s wish list or donate through their Razoo page.
Finally, if you can’t say no to a great party, attend MOI’s prom-themed benefit at Blackbird Café on May 17th. This prom is going to be way better than everyone’s faded memories of their high school proms because all the proceeds raised will directly benefit MOI. Prom attendees are encouraged to stop by BANGbang Salon before the prom for a pre-party complete with champagne, makeovers, and up-do services. Go to prom, and do it right this time—support MOI and their life-changing work!