Everyone has their story. Everyone also has a story to tell.
The written word, much like art, has the power to transmit knowledge and wisdom, infuse beauty into the mundane, provide insight and epiphany, and expand perceptions of our world and understanding of our fellow humankind. At its best, it can teach compassion; in its lesser incarnations, it passes the time on long airplane rides.
In the early 2000s, San Francisco public school teacher Nínive Clements Calegari lamented to her writer friend Dave Eggers that the volume of students she needed to edify and negotiate on any given day exceeded the realm of positive probability. Having to juggle 140-plus students made the one-on-one attention they deserved and desperately needed as feasible as Sisyphus making it up the hill rock in-toe. Eggers, by then a best-selling author, McSweeney’s publisher, and literary darling, noted how he and his writer pals, while enduring downtime between assignments, had time and smarts to spare. Hope’s spring eternal was tapped and the two aligned their vision, ingenuity, and earnest intentions into an advantageous scheme that would afford opportunity and assistance to children in-need.
If you build it they will come. Eggers and friends were able to secure a store front space at 826 Valencia, located in San Francisco’s Mission District, and went about transforming it into a home to house the dream of providing local school kids much-needed scholastic and creative writing instruction. While its primary function was to be focused on education, the actual space itself was zoned for retail. Inspired by the space’s inherent structure, vaguely reminiscent of a ship’s interior, and Egger’s penchant for whimsy, it was decided that the required retail component of the space would take the form of a Pirate Supply Store. With peg legs and eye patches in front, and work and writing lab spaces in back, in 2002 co-founders Clements Calegari and Eggers opened the doors of 826 Valencia.
With one facility successfully secured under 826’s swash-buckling belt, it was not long before others followed. In the course of a few short years, what began as a single grassroots, drop-in after school tutoring and writing assistance facility blossomed by leaps and bounds into a vital and vivacious nation-wide organization. Under the umbrella of 826 National, there are now eight thriving branches that service inner-city/low-income school children ages 6 – 18 with one-on-one tutoring, teacher-support in-school projects, and quirky and pragmatic writing-based workshops lead by 826 personnel, volunteers, and illustrious literary giants.
And as if it could get any better, every one of their student programs is free of charge.
All 826’s activities revolve around a project-based learning model; each 826 enterprise culminates into an actual published piece – whether it’s a professionally bound book, screenplay, zine, newspaper, or film. Participating kids are able to hold in their hands the tangible fruition of their efforts, which not only stokes their enthusiasm and passion for writing and self-expression, it reinforces that their stories hold value. (Many) hundreds of published pieces are produced each year and students, who are involved in every facet of the production process, enjoy the empowering plus of not only participating in public readings of their work but also, in some cases, having their work distributed through commercial bookstores.
On a national level, 826 serves thousands of children annually. Fortunately, 826’s tireless staff is supported by thousands of volunteers– a mishmash of writers, educators, comedians, John and Jane Q. Public -- who recognize the unprecedented merit of 826’s programs. Volunteers provide tutoring and writing assistance, and are rewarded by the positive impact their participation has on brightening the future of the children. (On my first day of volunteer tutoring, I left thoroughly energized having helped Pedro, a gregarious eight-year old with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, with his math homework, as well as assisted a thrilled six-year old Ana with a writing assignment-inspired art project.) As the kids segue from homework to reading to writing in the span of a few short hours their lives are forever enriched. You can see by the smiles on their faces and the dulled tips of their pencils that it is a worthy endeavor.
While 826 takes its work quite seriously, with reverent adherence to the guiding principles of child development, all their workshops, in-school projects, and teaching techniques are fanciful and inventive. Good humor is a must with 826. By making the lesson plans spunky and electrifying, 826 removes any potential intimidation factor and stuffy stigma of learning. By creating an active and engaging environment for the students, children are encouraged to readily explore the boundaries of their imagination. And they are responsibly encouraged every step of the way.
826’s endearing charm and off-beat joie de vivre infuses every aspect of its offerings. Even walking into one of the 826 branches is a kick; each location hosts a retail shop whose merchandise themes range from time travel to the study of Bigfoot. En route to the classroom, the kids’ creativity gets a jumpstart as they ogle the fantastical 826 store goodies. The experience also levels the adult-child playing field; granted the kids are there to work with adults, but hey, how bad can it be when you are entering the 826 classroom through a robot repair shop?
Loosely referencing a sentiment expressed by author Anne Lamott in her book Bird by Bird, writing involves being respectful and listening; by observing and recognizing the majesty in the both the harmony and divergence of what you see around you, life is revealed anew. Through the noble efforts of 826, deserving children are given the invaluable gift of relating to the world with eyes wider open. Their engagement with and performance in school improves, and most importantly, they are taught the significance their individual stories hold within the collective.