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Photograph by Lori Barra
MAGIC REALISM: Brunch with Isabel Allende is one of the ways San Francisco nonprofit The Beat Within says thank you to donors.

Signed, Sealed, Delivered

Bay Area writers' autographed books are the prize in a seasonal fundraising drive

By Paul Wagner

If a book is a great gift, an autographed copy from the author's own personal stash is even greater. And getting a signed copy from an author in person at a one-on-one brunch tops them all.

The San Francisco–based nonprofit the Beat Within knows this and has signed up Bay Area authors from the internationally renowned Isabel Allende to David Sheff (author of the bestselling memoir Beautiful Boy) for its Books for the Beat fundraising project. The writers donate signed copies of their works to the organization, which, in the style of the public-radio pledge-drive, hands out the autographed treasures and lunching opportunities to donors.

The Beat Within started 14 years ago, in the aftermath of the shooting of rapper Tupac Shakur, when a San Franciscan named David Inocencio dedicated himself to reducing youth violence. Knowing that artistic opportunities and mentoring programs do that most effectively of all known approaches, he went into San Francisco juvenile halls, where he invited jailed kids to write and draw. He packaged their works in a publication and titled it The Beat Within.

It was a hit. Juvenile justice systems from Santa Clara, Alameda, Marin and Santa Cruz counties signed on. Over the years, the Beat Within has grown into a Bay Area–wide organization with a 70-page weekly magazine. Each issue contains new prose, poetry and illustrations by incarcerated youth, with comments from adult mentors.

Its influence is such that, according to Beat Within volunteer Jill Wolfson, who hatched the Books for the Beat idea, "judges read it, probationers read it, and now it's read by incarcerated adults, too." Adults respond through their own publication, The Beat Without, sharing what they've learned.

Wolfson's involvement with troubled kids began a little over a decade ago while she was co-writing a book about the Santa Clara County juvenile justice system titled Somebody Else's Children. She started volunteering and visiting local juvenile facilities on Friday nights to encourage kids to write their feelings and experiences. She's been at it for 10 years.

It seems to work. Wolfson relates numerous incidents of running into post-juvie Beat writers who remember the magazine, like the time she ran into a grocery checker in a natural-foods store who recognized her, grew animated and recounted, "Hey! Back in The Beat, I got Piece of the Week!" That, Wolfson points out, was a decade previous, but the apparently now-successful grad of the grinding juvie system still found it a source of pride.

Wolfson initially came up with the Books for the Beat concept in an effort to match a Community Foundation grant, but it's taken off into a regional effort, and just in time for the holidays. Books for the Beat is offering The Beat Within for a $20 donation, an autographed book for $50 and brunch with a participating author for $500.

The program, which lasts through the end of this year, offers cookbooks and poetry collections, children's illustrated volumes and romance and mystery novels. Just a few of the selections are Isabel Allende's Daughter of Fortune, Susie Bright's Bitten, Randall Grahm's Been Doon So, Katherine Ellison's Mommy Brain, Ellen Bass and Laura Davis' The Courage to Heal and Karen Joy Fowler's Jane Austen Book Club. While donors can't choose the individual title they'll get, they're assured a fine work, and they can make a request, at the brunch-donor level, as to which author they'd like to share a meal with. And whatever the gift, they're all but guaranteed that nice do-gooders' glow.

For info, call 415.503.4170 or email [email protected]

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