Meet Birte Klug. She spends nearly 6 out of 7 days a week (yes, she sometimes works on Saturdays!) teaching, tutoring and nurturing the creative minds of students ages 6-18. Beyond that she still has time left over dedicated to instructing the grown-up world on how to say and spell her name (“Birdie? Bert? Bieta? Beatta? Bertha??”). The kids at 826LA get way closer than most adults, adorning the many (many) hand drawn, crayon-colored portraits of her with hearts and the moniker BRITE. But how perfect that the kids would confuse her name with a homonym of something shining, brilliant, smart, cheerful, sunny, intelligent, colorful, and all of the other numerous definitions for the word bright?
Upon graduating from UC Santa Cruz, Birte (officially pronounced bee-eh-ta) decided to return to her hometown of Los Angeles. It was then she came upon Dave Eggers’ TED Wish speech and “was completely blown away.” Six months later, in January 2010, she was interning at 826LA. It only took her mere hours to fall in love: “Seeing an entire classroom of students so engaged and invigorated was truly inspiring, and I knew I was lucky enough to be working at a really special place.” Birte worked her way into becoming a VISTA member in early 2011. (Birte had to explain to me that VISTA is a division of Americorps and stands for Volunteers in Service to America. VISTA members work on capacity building for programs focused on alleviating poverty.) Birte is the VISTA Volunteer Outreach and Support Assistant at 826LA West, which means that she “[works] every day to ensure that all of the programs that 826LA runs on a daily basis are well-supported by dedicated, trained volunteers.” Not only that, but she also runs volunteer training sessions, does outreach to new volunteers, and coordinates volunteer appreciation events.
Basically, she’s kind of a Wonder Woman in the Los Angeles volunteer world.
I first met Birte when I started volunteering/interning/spending-all-of-my-time at 826LA in Venice, CA. In the beginning, I admit, I was a little intimidated by her. Here was this girl that I had to report to at 10 AM every morning, whose desk was organized with labeled folders, who could answer phone calls perfectly in Spanish and who also was my age (okay, she’s a couple of months older.) Birte has the amazing ability to both tell students to return to their seats and finish their homework as well as be their friend. And not only do they actually listen to her, but they also write poems and stories about her when they are finished with their multiplication. (So jealous. I’m still waiting for a poem to be written about me.)
“I have this really awesome (I think!) pair of patterned silk pants that I was really proud of because I got them on mega-sale at Anthropologie. The first time I wore them to work, I walked into the writing lab and this student Jose immediately yelled, “Birte, why you are wearing pajamas?!” It was one of the greatest things I’ve ever heard.”
Some people do it all for the Benjamins, but Birte does it for something else: the kids.
“I was able to develop some pretty amazing relationships with the program’s regular students as an intern, and I’ve been able to continue to watch them grow as a VISTA,” says Birte. “They’re just so smart, funny, and insightful, and it’s a real treat to be able to watch them develop, both academically and personally, over time.”
Birte goes above and beyond any official title. She takes the time to know the kids as well as the volunteers. Who would organize a weekly burrito feast at a local Mexican restaurant for volunteers, staff and interns alike? Birte would. Who would bring together the craziest mix of people for a Thursday night of Karaoke? Again, Birte would. She cares so much about each crack and crevice of 826LA, that she has not just created a community, she has created a family. Birte doesn’t hang up her hat at 6 PM—she whips out the game Apples to Apples and invites everyone to play a round. There are times when I leave my house for Venice at 9 AM, and do not return home from “work” until 2 AM the next day. Birte makes me look forward to those days. You plan on coming for a few hours for volunteering at After School Tutoring? You’ll end up staying for a potluck or a burrito eating contest. Nothing says family like competitive eating nicknames.
At the end of the day, Birte says that 826LA has taught her most about “patience, endurance and the importance of working both independently and as a team.” I say that Birte has taught me most about compassion; I am constantly amazed watching someone so young put so much love into such inspiring work.