When Coronavirus Hit, This Writing Nonprofit Expanded to Serving Lunch
A Conversation with Tim Whitaker of Mighty Writers
Mighty Writers, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit, offers free educational programs to kids in seven different neighborhoods in the area. When the coronavirus pandemic forced a halt to in-person instruction, they shifted their focus to educating kids online—soon, they began offering additional services to their students and the surrounding community, including distributing food to those in need. Executive director Tim Whitaker answered questions about the organization’s educational mission, its response to the pandemic, and what students are thinking about right now. (Watch Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell in the first episode of our new Mighty SONG Writers series, to benefit Mighty Writers.)
Can you describe the communities that you serve?
All our centers are in economically challenged communities. Pre-virus, we had seven locations: five in Philadelphia, one in Camden, NJ and another in Chester County, where we teach literacy skills to the children of farmworkers. In two locations, the constituency is largely Mexican. At both, we teach kids writing in both Spanish and English.
Mighty Writers has a number of chapters in different neighborhoods around Philadelphia and New Jersey. How do you keep your mission focused on the needs of these communities?
The needs are similar in all these communities—better jobs, better schools, stronger infrastructure (like grocery stores, health facilities), etc. In the Mexican communities, we are sensitive to possible documentation issues as well, which makes getting help from the government nearly impossible. Through it all, though, we stay true to our mission, which is to teach kids “to think clearly and write with clarity.” When kids do that, their self-esteem soars and success comes into view. Writing has power, and they can count on it to get them places.
Your organization began distributing lunches and diapers to kids during the coronavirus pandemic. How did you make the decision to expand into this area and why?
When the virus came to town in March, it was quickly apparent that the communities we serve were going to be hit hard. Many of our Mighty parents work in service industries, often in the kitchens of restaurants, so they were out of work immediately. We began by providing lunches for the kids, then lunches and groceries, then diapers and masks. We respond to the needs of communities as they surface.
How has your organization adjusted to remote learning recently?
We’re getting better by the day. To be a good remote teacher, you have to practice a little performance art to keep kids from drifting away. You also have to text them before each class to remind them to get “Zoom ready.” Like grown-ups, they sometimes forget what day it is, let alone what time it is.
What kinds of concerns are you hearing from your students right now? What are they most interested in?
Kids’ concerns are pretty much the same as ours—they want their lives to go back to pre-virus days. Our high school age kids wonder about college—will it be the same for them as it was for us? Best you can do is hear them out, give them the room and respect to verbalize their concerns, knowing that most of the answers to their questions are unknowable.