Ahoy, Matey! 826 Valencia Reinvents the Writing Center


Becoming a pirate? 826 Valencia’s Pirate Supply Store in San Francisco has hooks to replace missing hands, captain’s journals, and even a leash for your monkey. Gear for aspiring pirates fills the space, but in the back of the store is something more fantastical — a writing center.

Founded in 2002 by Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and educator Nínive Calegari, nonprofit 826 Valencia helps under-resourced students ages 6 to 18 develop their creative and expository writing. Named for its street location in the Mission District of San Francisco, the writing center sees itself as a place, separate from school and home, where students receive one-on-one attention and think of themselves as writers. It’s become a supplement to the public education system in San Francisco, and with 826 National has taken its model to other cities.

In 2008, the nonprofit officially formed 826 National to support its other chapters. There are currently seven in the U.S. The writing programs are the same, but the whimsical storefronts are different in each city. 826LA runs a Time Travel Mart. Brooklyn’s 826NYC features superhero supplies. And the Greater Boston Bigfoot Research Institute fronts 826 Boston. A new location in the San Francisco’s Tenderloin, the city’s most densely populated neighborhood, will open in 2016. 826 National has also inspired similar projects in England, Ireland, and Italy.

Each year more than 6,000 active volunteers help 826 National provide free services to the communities it serves. In 2014, the seven 826 chapters served more than 32,000 students. Each location offers five programs: after-school tutoring, workshops, Young Authors’ Book Project, field trips, and in-school programs. For those who can’t make it to a store, the in-school program sends a team of volunteers to schools to help with everything from school newspapers to college entrance essays. At the stores, you can read and purchase student writing. 826 National uses those proceeds, along with donations and fundraising, to keep its work going.

Eggers came up with the idea of a tutoring center while trying to finish his first book in 2000. He’d talked with his friends and mother about student struggles with grade-level reading and writing. The solution, they told him, was more bodies. Some teachers worked with more than 200 students a day, an impossible number if those students were to get the one-on-one time they needed to succeed. As a writer, Eggers had flexible hours, and he knew writers and editors who he suspected might have time to give as well.

Eggers wanted to use McSweeney’s, a non-profit publishing house he founded in 1998, as a conduit to pair people who had time and interest with students in need of individual attention. When McSweeney’s moved to San Francisco, he got his chance. The company rented office space and planned to use part of the space as a tutoring center. McSweeney’s writers and editors were at the office anyway, so staffing the writing center was easy. And there was one, fortunate, hiccup. The space they rented was zoned for retail. As they refurbished what was an old gym, someone joked that its whitewashed beams and wooden floor made the space look like the hull of a ship. Then someone suggested they sell “supplies to the working buccaneer.”

That joke became an opportunity to make writing fun. It didn’t take off until Eggers brought in Calegari. “There was a trust gap,” Eggers said at TED in 2008, “because we were operating behind a pirate supply store.” Calegari joined as executive director and worked with schools and parents until the space was full every day.

At TED, Eggers got to the heart of why 826 Valencia exists: “The schools need you. The teachers need you. Students and parents need you. They need your actual person: your physical personhood and your open minds and open ears and boundless compassion, sitting next to them, listening and nodding and asking questions for hours at a time.”


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Originally published at stories.newco.co on January 4, 2016.

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