Ryan Lewis 2015-09-01 03:39:54
Nonprofit 826 National takes an unconventional approach to encourage creativity and foster young writers. Every weekday, a class of Los Angeles elementary school students enters a secret portal in a store that sells time travel supplies. That portal leads to a room where they write original, creative works. Students in San Francisco access their writing space through the hull of a pirate ship. Meanwhile in Chicago, young authors are hard at work in a covert area behind a shop pedaling espionage gear. Welcome to an ordinary day for 826 National. In tutoring centers across the U.S.—in LA; San Francisco; Ann Arbor, Mich.; Chicago; Boston; New York; and Washington, D.C.—826 National helps students develop writing skills, teaches young writers to express themselves through storytelling, and turns even reluctant wordsmiths into published authors. Last year alone, the nonprofit served over 32,000 students, primarily from low-income communities. The organization publishes close to 1,000 student works annually, many of which are sold at bookstores and on amazon.com; programs are offered free of charge. This impact can be traced back to San Francisco’s Mission District, where educator Nínive Calegari and author Dave Eggers (known for his best-selling “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”) opened a small tutoring space in 2002 named 826 Valencia. They invited community members to tutor a handful of students each day, but soon, an obstacle presented itself: The space was on a street zoned for retail. Out of obligation, Eggers and friends turned the center’s front into a shop for faux pirate supplies. Unexpectedly, San Francisco’s “only independent pirate supply store” became a boon and still pays a large portion of 826 Valencia’s operating costs, stocking items like message bottles and peg legs. “With 826 Valencia, I became acutely aware that addressing needs in our education system sometimes required unusual approaches,” Eggers says. The store became a model for future chapters. The Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co. Fronts 826NYC; 826DC houses the Museum of Unnatural History, and so on. Gerald Richards, 826 National’s CEO, believes the decor sets a creative tone. “[The spaces are] where students and adults can be as strange, fun and imaginative as they wish to be,” he says. The organization attributes its rapid growth to its greatest resource: volunteers. “There are caring adults in every community, wanting to help the kids they see every day,” Eggers says. “The power of 826 comes from bringing the kids and the adults together and letting them be genuine and real with each other in a setting that is anything but ordinary.” With education issues becoming exasperated in urban school districts, 826 National has no intention of slowing. “We have several cities— Minneapolis-St. Paul and New Orleans are two—in our chapter development process,” Richards says. The organization also publishes books of writing curriculum with plans to license out some of its programs soon. To learn more about donating or volunteering, visit 826national.org.
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