I've chosen this picture above as I think it best sums up my week in Los Angeles, the 'city of stars'. Whether you're already a star, on your way to becoming a star or just a star-in-waiting, it's easy to get the impression that star-spotting is what this city is all about. We started out by doing all the touristy things like visiting Universal Studios and Madame Tussaud's wax museum and got our photos taken with Brad Pitt and Lady Gaga. We took one of those double-decker tour buses around Hollywood, where the recorded guide pointed out where you could potentially spot a star, shop where the stars do, get a glimpse of where the stars live and even eat at the same hot dog stand where stars have been known to eat. After three days of touristy (nearly) star-spotting, I thought it was time to see another part of LA.
It was then that I remembered the fabulous Pigeons had told me the Valencia 826 crew had a branch in Los Angeles. If you don't know about Pigeons or Valencia 826, you really should. Valencia 826 was started by author Dave Eggers in San Francisco as a drop-in after school tutor centre run by volunteers, often local authors, to help under-priviledged kids with their homework and story writing. Our own lovely Pigeons' founders Lachlann Carter and Jenna Williams had done an internship at Valencia 826 in San Fran and are now in the process of beginning a similar project in Melbourne. I looked up the address, there were two in LA, the closest one in Venice Beach. So, we set our GPS coordinates and headed down Venice Boulevard.
At first we couldn't find it. I had expected a fancy store front - or at least a flashy big sign. In San Franscisco the centre is hidden behind a pirate supply store, in Sydney, the equivalent is tucked behind a store for martians. We pulled up outside an old police station, now run as a community Arts hub. A woman at the front desk directed us to the second floor where, all that showed us where the Valencia 826 people were to be found, was a little piece of paper on a door. Now you have to understand, this organisation has almost taken on iconic status around the world. Dave Eggers started it, Roddy Doyle opened one in Ireland, Markus Zusak is patron of the Sydney one - these people are all my heroes, so I was very humbled to see how simple these offices really were.
A school holiday program had just finished so we were able to be shown around by a very kind volunteer. There was not much to look at other than a classroom and a simple office space. We bought a couple of books made by students, took some flyers, and that was it. Everything but flashy. On our way out, another volunteer suggested we check out the gallery downstairs, converted from the old jail at the back of the police station. The notice inside the doorway explained that the exhibition of poems and photographs on the white-washed walls was from a program to provide services for incarcerated young people and those reentering the community.
It was a small exhibition, but incredibly moving. One poem was of a young man apologising to his mother for all the hurt he had caused her, another trying to understand how he had gone from a straight-A student to finding himself in jail. The average age of the writers was seventeen. Younger than my oldest son. I walked away from the community centre both touched and inspired that while I had glimpsed a part of LA that wasn't all money and celebrities, I had finally spotted some stars. Those volunteers at Valencia 826 and the community workers helping young people at risk, so that they might have the same opportunities as those who shop on Rodeo Drive.
Next stop: New Orleans. But I will try and squeeze in a post before on the awe-inspiring, overwhelming, truly gigantic SCBWI conference I attended over the weekend.