East Oakland Student Writing Her Own Story After A Challenging Childhood

Students Rising Above with Wendy Tokuda

(KPIX 5) — It takes some imagination to write a story involving a catapult. That was the assignment the day as we visited 826 Valencia, the storied non-profit that teaches low-income kids how to write.

It’s summer and the classroom is full, with students teachers and volunteers as well.

Summer intern /teacher Kemonni Pitre was busy talking with a little girl about whether she has a character for her story, what are her ideas for a plot, and how does the catapult enter the scene?

It’s been an eye-opener for Kemonni, who was catapulted into her internship by Students Rising Above.

“I never thought I’d see myself as a teacher,” she said. “Not just a voice of authority but as a person that cares, it really speaks to me. I’m really loving what I’m doing.”

The philosophy behind 826 Valencia is that kids learn more with one-on-one attention and having interns like Kemonni and volunteers makes that kind of teaching possible.

Learning to write is crucial if you want to succeed professionally or just to function in society. It’s a skill low-income kids often do not learn well enough in public schools.

“To express your ideas clearly or to be able to advocate for what you need to make your way in the world, the written word is really a powerful tool,” said 826 Valencia staffer Molly Parent. Without that skill, low-income kids can be isolated from the professional word.

And there is a double learning experience for summer interns like Kemonni. These internships are a first step into the professional world – something crucial for a young woman from East Oakland.

That’s where we first met Kemonni when she was just finishing her senior year at Met West High in 2013. She graduated with honors; a significant accomplishment for someone who had to change high schools four times – once because the school closed, another time because transportation became a problem.

But Kemonni’s goal was always college – an idea she got, not from her parents but from watching television.

“I remember when I was in elementary school and, like, watching TV and seeing kids in college and seeing how happy they looked and I always wanted to be that student,” she said.

But life on TV is so different from hers. When she was still a toddler, the gun violence in her neighborhood changed her life. Her father was shot and killed while defending his younger brother.

That left her mother to raise four children on her own. They scraped by financially, living month-to-month on her mom’s minimum wage earnings.

Going to college will give Kemonni a chance for better life. She is a rising senior at San Francisco State now. She’s always wanted to work with kids, but this internship is giving her on-the-job experience and also, helping her to further shape her goals.

“I could definitely see myself in the future working at a non-profit organization working with underprivileged youth organizations,” she said. But after this internship, she is considering changing her major to Child and Adolescent Development, a much more focused area of study than Sociology.

Seeing someone like Kemonni sends a message to the kids at 826 Valencia, too. It’s good role-modeling, Parent pointed out. “Our students get to see people … who are like them, maybe have gotten to overcome challenges, maybe people who went to the same schools that they went to and come from the same backgrounds,” said Parent. “That provides the opportunity for students to envision a future for themselves.”

Everyone has a story and at Valencia 826, those stories are being told with words, and sometimes without.


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