Mighty Writers helps kids learn the power of their words

Whitaker relaxes with Mighty Writers Youth coordinator James Owk (center) and Isaac Mooney.

AFTER Tim Whitaker got canned from his job as editor of Philadelphia Weekly in 2009, he took inventory of his journalistic options and came up with pretty much zilch.

But instead of resigning himself to penning the occasional freelance article, the way many unemployed newspaper people do, Whitaker decided to share his passion for writing by starting a nonprofit called Mighty Writers. He set it up inside donated space at 15th and Christian streets and invited local kids to free after-school programs, writing workshops and SAT prep courses.

Fast-forward five years. Mighty Writers has become not only a treasured community resource with a new satellite office in West Philly, but it has reached the attention of the White House. Earlier this month, Whitaker learned that Mighty Writers is one of 50 finalists for a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. If selected, Mighty Writers will be invited to a White House awards ceremony presided over by first lady Michelle Obama.

Not bad for an organization that five years ago was just a pipe dream in the mind of an out-of-work journalist wondering what the heck he was going to do with himself.


The writer's road

The eldest of seven children, Whitaker attended Catholic schools in Bethlehem, where his dad was an electronic-parts salesman and later ran his own small electronic-parts business.

"I read everything," recalled Whitaker, whose favorite books included Alex Haley's "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," and "The Grapes of Wrath," by John Steinbeck. "I was more interested in books and writing than in getting good grades."

After graduating in 1970 from Villanova University, he accepted a teaching job at Gesu School, in North Philadelphia, but quickly realized it wasn't a good fit.

"I wasn't mature enough," said Whitaker, now 65. "Looking back at it, I just wasn't ready."

After stepping away from teaching, he began to contribute freelance articles to small publications, such as the Germantown Courier and the now-defunct Distant Drummer. The late state Rep. Dave Richardson was a colorful and frequent subject.

Whitaker eventually moved on to larger publications, such as Pittsburgh Magazine, which he edited for a time, and Philadelphia magazine. During the early 1990s, he edited the now-defunct PhillySport magazine. Along the way, he wrote a book called "Crash: The Life and Times of Dick Allen,"about the controversial Phillies player.

His longest job tenure, though, was as editor of the Philadelphia Weekly, where for 14 years he nurtured the careers of such rising stars as novelist and Daily News columnist Solomon Jones, Kia Gregory, of the New York Times, and Mike Newall, of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

"I love young talent. I like seeing them succeed," Whitaker said of his days at Philly Weekly. "It just got unpleasant. The meetings went from story ideas to what cutbacks are we going to make? Who are we going to cut? I didn't want to be around that."


A Mighty launch

Meanwhile, Whitaker had learned about a San Francisco-based program called 826 Valencia, founded in part by author Dave Eggers that teaches youngsters about the literary arts. The concept intrigued him.

After leaving Philly Weekly, he submitted a proposal to the Lenfest Foundation and several months later was granted $200,000 to launch Mighty Writers. Famed songwriter/producer Kenny Gamble provided office space at the corner of 15th and Christian streets.

"Too many of our kids get to college and they can't write," pointed out Faatimah Gamble, Kenny Gamble's wife. "It's such an important component for children's development."

As she spoke, she stood outside a community garden across the street from Mighty Writers, as youngsters wandered in for the after-school program. A table set up on the sidewalk with a sign indicating "free books" was covered with young-adult paperbacks. Youngsters are encouraged to take the books to create their own libraries.

When it's nice out, Mighty Writers sometimes meets outside in the community garden or at a nearby park. Other times, coordinators sit with the students inside, in welcoming spaces that make you feel like settling in for a while. An upper floor at the South Philly location has a comic book room with a rack of comic books. Pictures of super heroes, such as Batman, Superman and Iron Man, adorn lime-green walls.

Other walls at Mighty Writers are covered with floor-to-ceiling murals or decorated with black-and-white photos of Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison and other famous black writers. The object isn't to lure kids into journalism but to get them to use writing to learn to better express themselves and think more clearly. There are other benefits as well.

"I come because it gives me a sense of community. A lot of good vibes come out of this place," said Serenity Baruzzini, who attends the after-school program at 15th and Christian.

"Before Mighty Writers, I was antisocial. I was quiet. But when I came here, it was easier to talk to other kids. It was good practice for me," said Serenity, who used to be home-schooled but now attends Mastery Charter School - Thomas campus. "It taught me how to make friends."

In September, Mighty Writers expanded to a second location, at 39th Street and Lancaster Aveneue, inside a former church. Former Inquirer columnist Annette John-Hall heads up that operation.

"Because of his journalistic background, when [Whitaker] sees a need, he jumps on it like a story," John-Hall said. "When he saw the need for books because the [school] libraries were closing, he jumped on it. If the SAT is changing . . . he makes us all aware and we adjust accordingly.

"I think that's why were getting such buzz is because we jump on stuff," she said last week.

Here's hoping that the next thing that Mighty Writers jumps on will be that $10,000 award from the White House. Hopefully, that'll come with admission to the White House.

"I think what would be really cool is to take some kids there," Whitaker said.


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Email: armstrj@phillynews.com