The Minister of Make Believe

Janet Heller, founder of Chapter 510, inspires children to become storytellers.


Photo by Ariel Nava

Like the Wizard of Oz, Janet Heller was lurking unseen behind venetian blinds in a corner office in Uptown Oakland. The founder of Chapter 510 was working a microphone in the imposing role of “Minister of Make Believe.”

“I need some good stories!” her gruff, disembodied voice boomed over a public address system.

“We can do it!” erupted 9-year-old Bryan DelToro, before nervously looking around for support from his classmates, who were on a recent trip to Chapter 510, a burgeoning youth writing program in downtown Oakland.

But the Minister was reserving judgment.

So, with help from a few adult guides, the 19 kids from East Oakland’s public Acorn Woodland Elementary School brainstormed about what makes a good story: a beginning, middle and end; characters; dialogue; problems and a solution.

Soon, a narrative emerged focused on twin brothers combatting a polluter named Litterboy who was making a mess of a town called Germany on the moon.

Thus, again, did the magic of fresh imaginations spinning tales play out in the cinderblock Telegraph Avenue storefront that Heller and cofounder Tavia Stewart have improbably fashioned into a home for Chapter 510, an increasingly vital nonprofit that seems poised for significant growth and likely adoption by San Francisco author Dave Eggers’ national network of youth writing centers. Eggers’ 826 Valencia group was the inspiration for Chapter 510, which similarly has a volunteer center supported by a merchandise store, though one centered on the motif of magical bureaucracy instead of pirates.

“We definitely had to prove ourselves, and we have,” said Heller, who previously founded and ran the San Francisco WritersCorps program for 16 years. “I think that we’re going to make it, and I think we’re going to be a model.”

Already, Chapter 510, which is filled with books, toys, and costumes that belonged to Heller and Stewart’s families, has marshaled an army of volunteers to serve thousands of kids annually with a fanciful diet of free writing and bookmaking workshops, camps, and public events (and often just plain food).

“I am so thankful that we were able to participate and to have a no-cost field trip where the focus is both creative and literacy based,” said Acorn Woodland teacher Sara Horwitz, after her fourth-grade class’s recent outing.

 Chapter 510 has survived over the last few years largely with $100,000 in seed funding from the Berkeley-based Abundance Foundation, though it recently got a matching, $225,000 three-year grant from the city of Oakland and a $75,000 three-year grant from 49ers legend Ronnie Lott’s foundation. Chapter 510 also got early backing from the Philanthropic Ventures Foundation, and on the 10th of this month, it is hosting a party to launch a $350,000 campaign to expand programs in a proposed five-story center for arts, food, and community center. The new building is a dream of Chapter 510’s landlords, two idealistic young San Francisco architects who want to replace the structure at the corner of 23rd Street and Telegraph Avenue where Chapter 510 has been since 2015. The area is changing rapidly, with construction underway in multiple directions, but it has long been impoverished, and it is not uncommon for people with their belongings in shopping carts to camp on Chapter 510’s doorstep.

Heller hopes that the fundraising challenge will be eased by becoming part of 826 National, which has affiliates in seven cities and this year took Chapter 510 into its development pipeline.

Gerald Richards, 826 National’s CEO, said many people want to be part of the 826 family but that a much smaller number are able to translate dreams into reality. Heller is one who immediately knew what needed to be done, and Chapter 510’s progress has been nothing short of amazing, he said. He marveled at the hundreds of people who might come through on a First Friday art walk, for which Chapter 510’s students have given readings of their writing. “She is a very dedicated and strong leader,” Richards said. 

It is a satisfying moment for Heller, who decided to launch Chapter 510 in 2013 after more than a year of discussions with the Abundance Foundation. The foundation wanted to help start an East Bay group in the mold of 826 Valencia, which provides tutoring and other services in San Francisco’s Mission District.

“It is always scary and risky to go for a big idea when you don’t have the money all raised,” Heller said. “It’s extremely rewarding to see something that you made have a heartbeat.”

Heller was particularly proud of a recent Creative Work Fund-sponsored event centered on Harriet Tubman, in which young women shared stories in the midst of an elaborate art installation created by the troupe House/Full of BlackWomen, which focuses on displacement, well being, and sex trafficking of black women and girls in Oakland. “I felt like we had arrived,” she said.

A mother of an 11-year-old girl and a 17-year-old boy, Heller took a sabbatical in 2010 from WritersCorps to write and teach. Divorce and the sudden death of both parents prompted a “reset” of her life, and Heller, who lives in Oakland’s Longfellow neighborhood, cottoned immediately to the notion of building something in her own city and being more directly involved with youth.

Heller has a particular passion for inspiring young people through the written word, having found solace herself putting pen to paper during a tumultuous period in her own childhood: there was an absent father who fled the country to avoid prosecution for alleged embezzlement and an expulsion from high school. “I found refuge in writing and community in writing ... connecting in some way versus just feeling, ‘What the hell is happening to me? Life is really hard.’”

After majoring in English and editing a literary magazine at Tulane University, Heller took a job teaching at a high school in rural Louisiana called Promised Land Academy, but the community there didn’t take kindly to having To Kill A Mockingbird on the curriculum. Swastikas appeared on her blackboard.

So Heller went back to graduate school at Florida State University and founded a writing program for homeless and runaway youth. That led to a fellowship with the National Endowment for the Arts that produced WritersCorps, a three-city community arts initiative, including San Francisco’s program.

Operating out of her apartment and cafes, Heller reached out to writers, teachers, schools, libraries, universities, bookstores, and activists and began teaching and publishing youth writing. The first book was No One is the Boss of Yeast, which arose from a partnership with Arizmendi Bakery on Lakeshore Avenue and North Oakland Community Charter School. Also a mentor at MetWest High School, Heller got small grants to hire bookmaking artists and release limited editions of youth writing on the Harlem Renaissance, weather, and the solar system.

Upon learning about Chapter 510, Stewart, an Oakland mom, said she practically begged to join Heller, which she did in 2015. Stewart previously cofounded National Novel Writing Month, a now famous, largely online San Francisco-based program popularly known as NaNoWriMo. She calls Heller, who is 12 years her senior, a master fundraiser and a gifted builder of coalitions.

“We’re really, really driven. This is our purpose, this kind of work,” Heller said.

Stewart is the one who conceived of the Department of Make Believe, a magical bureaucracy that keeps official records of creative manifestation and issues licenses to dream to those who take a number and fill out an application form.

Chapter 510 commissioned an artist—Heller likes to pay artists—to build a play box filled with sand atop an old desk and filled it with a disparate assortment of plastic toys so that nervous children could loosen their minds while waiting in the foyer.

“I bow down to her when I see her; I have so much respect for what she has given to this project,” said Wendy Donner, the Abundance Foundation’s education program director. “When students interact with this kind of program, they come alive. It shines a light inside their heart. To me, that is what matters most in the world.”

Recently, Heller was trying to figure out how to raise money for a $5,000 book-binding machine, which would allow Chapter 510 to publish children’s books in quantity for sale at outlets like Diesel Books on College Avenue. In the past, Chapter 510 has taught children to stitch books together by hand or used printing services, the cost of which has limited production.

Even so, all of Horwitz’s fourth graders were requested by the Minister of Make Believe to write their own endings to the group’s story about the battle to save Germany on the moon from Litterboy’s desecrating ways. And all were then promised bound copies of their own versions.

The deal was sealed, however, only after their work was reviewed for quality by the still unseen Minister, whose stentorian voice summoned the self-conscious writers one by one to a standing position to hear her verdicts.

Invariably the Minister declared ceremoniously that she sanctioned every story, but the children were nevertheless visibly relieved.

“The kids all said the lady in the box was nice at the end,” said 10-year-old Carmela Williams.


Published online on June 7, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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