You’d think a place called Rock Star Supply Co. would sell designer guitar picks, leather pants, feathered earrings and more. And when you walk in to this airy, bright storefront on the corner of Raymond and University in St. Paul, that’s exactly what it seems to be selling.
But, stop by after 3:00 PM, and it’ll be pretty clear that nothing of that sort goes on. See, Rock Star Supply Co. is a non-profit that offering free tutoring and writing programs to Twin Cities youth. Four days a week it’s teeming with kids and volunteer tutors collaborating on anything from a science presentation on volcanoes, to writing a poem about the never-ending winter, to even polishing up a personal statement for a college application.
Modeled after 826 Valencia in San Francisco, RSS Co. was founded in 2009 and has been offering in-classroom support to hundreds of kids in St. Paul public schools since. 826 Valencia, a pirate-themed storefront developed by acclaimed writer Dave Eggers and educator Nínive Calegari, started in 2002 to provide pirate supplies and writing programs to San Francisco youth. Since then, 826 Valencia has evolved into a collective known as 826 National, featuring distinctly themed chapters (superheroes, time travel, “unnatural” history) in major cities from coast to coast.
The St. Paul organization is undergoing the first phase development to become the next 826 chapter, and it’s already onboard with 826’s commitment to offering free programming to the community, including free homework help, weekend writing workshops, and an English Language Learning summer camp. Unlike other chapters, the 826 in St. Paul developed independently from the national organization and is the first of its kind to be approved for membership into the larger 826 National collective.
As part of the development process, RSS Co. is rebranding its storefront to become “The Mid-Continent Oceanographic Institute.” They’ll trade in their guitar picks and sequins for goggles and oxygen tanks. The store will emphasize the silliness and absurdity of selling sea exploration equipment for wannabe Jacques Cousteau types to folks in, of all places, in Minnesota. But again, the sea-theme is just a front for the serious business of tutoring and mentoring kids in the act of writing and storytelling.
Along with the rebranding, this summer will mark the end of the first year of occupying the space on University. It will also mark one full year of having Chad Kampe serve as Executive Director. Kampe brings invaluable classroom experience, having worked at Minneapolis Jewish Day School for three years as a fifth grade teacher, a penchant for service, and a devotion to the Twin Cities community.
“I don’t think that as I child I understood or appreciated giving back the to the community,” says Chad. When I had to complete my Bar Mitzvah project, I was stuck on what to do. But out of this obligation, I started working with the elderly on a regular basis, and have been hooked on volunteering ever since.”
Service is the life force of RSS Co. Its mission is to impact the growing Opportunity Gap responsible for the huge disparities in achievement throughout public education by offering its high quality programming, for free. Tikkun olam, the Hebrew phrase that means “repairing the world,” is not a goal of RSS Co., but a fitting descriptor of the sense of duty Kampe and his league of volunteer tutors feel.
“RSS Co. is a perfect job for me, and that has everything to do with my Judaism. I am able to give back to the community and practice Mitzvot daily.”
The location of RSS Co. is key to the reach it’s likely to have as it continues to expand its programming. It sits conveniently on the METRO Green Line (opening June 14th), and is quite near the campuses of University of Minnesota, Macalester College and University of St. Thomas. Recruited mostly from these colleges, the organization’s volunteer tutors make a direct impact. After they are oriented to the programs and brought up to speed on the material kids need the most help on (a brush-up on algebra, perhaps), volunteers commit 90 minutes per week to work with students during free homework help hours, which are 3:00-6:00, Monday-Thursday.
“We live in a time when people freely offer complaints about their neighborhoods or immediate communities, yet do little to enact the changes they want to see. Folks have to recognize how poised we are to make certain change happen; it’s got to start somewhere.”
Daniel Ross is a junior studying English and Educational Studies at Macalester College, and an intern at Rock Star Supply Co. You can contact him at [email protected].