On a recent weekday in the back of the Time Travel Mart in Echo Park, about 40 students were diligently doing their homework, reading and writing. Some were sitting one-on-one with tutors; others were working in groups or tiptoeing to grab a book from an expansive bookshelf.
Among them was Brandon Torres, 10, who had just finished his reading assignment.
Since first participating in 826LA's after-school literacy tutoring program two years ago, the fifth-grader said he's been doing better in school.
"They help with my homework, and when they help I get good grades," Brandon said. "I want to go to a good college. I want to go to USC and be a scientist like Dr. [Albert] Einstein."
After the students — ranging in age from 6 to 11 — complete their daily homework, the program shifts to reading and writing. They choose a book from 826LA's in-house library, then read silently or aloud with a tutor. Students then tackle a writing project.
Lesly Gallo, 10, said 826LA has helped improve her writing skills.
"They helped me learn strategies for writing, and they push you to write fun and silly stories," she said.
The tutors proofread her writing to make sure she doesn't miss anything — a skill she's picked up during her classes at nearby Gabriella Charter School.
"I like that when we read, you can choose any book you want," Lesly said.
She's now reading "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" and loving it.
826LA is part of a national chain of after-school programs, with another branch in Mar Vista. The nonprofit also has a tutoring program for students ages 11 to 18.
Not all students can make their way to 826LA chapters, so the program brings tutors to local schools as well, said Joel Arquillos, the program's executive director.
"It's all about getting kids excited about writing," Arquillos said. "This is a place that values and honors books."
Between 2012 and 2013, 826LA served 8,160 students in Los Angeles. Some 95% of parents reported that their child's writing skills improved because of the program, according to a survey by 826LA. And 89% of students said the program helped raise their grades.
Through the generosity of Times readers and a match by the McCormick Foundation, $810,000 was granted to local literacy programs this year through the Los Angeles Times Holiday Campaign.
The Holiday Campaign, part of the Los Angeles Times Family Fund, raises contributions to support established literacy programs run by nonprofit organizations that serve low-income children and adults who are reading below grade levels, at risk of illiteracy or who have limited English proficiency.
Donations are tax-deductible as permitted by law and matched at 50 cents on the dollar. Donor information is not traded or published without permission. Donate online at latimes.com/donate or by calling (800) 518-3975. All gifts will receive a written acknowledgment.