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If you ever wanted to be a pirate, superhero, or time traveler, there are now stores across the United States that can cater to your needs, with supplies like mermaid bait and photon shooters. The little secret is that these stores act as fronts for after-school writing programs tutoring ages six through eighteen, under the umbrella known as 826 National. How did such a nationwide organization come to be? It all started at 826 Valencia.
The idea was jotted on a napkin in a San Francisco restaurant by frustrated, but determined freelance author and journalist Dave Eggers. Says Nínive Calegari, his 826 Valencia co-founder, “Dave knew there was this talent pool out there and had this notion that if a flexible program was created, when these writers weren’t drowning or finishing their next novel, they could possibly shed light on a seventh grade essay."
At the time the idea was conceived, Calegari’s teaching job in Mexico was taking its toll on her. “Many days I forgot that teaching and learning are extremely joyful.” Like most other teachers, Calegari faced a dilemma – carving out enough time to give each child’s writing attention. “The thing Dave and I both knew and believed was that, no matter where you are with writing, getting that extra amount of undivided attention makes all the difference.”
Putting the wheels in motion towards a solution, Eggers found the ideal spot for the endeavor in the Mission District of San Francisco, only to come up against zoning requirements calling for a retail space. His solution: a pirate supply store. “To put his name on that lease was an exceptional act of courage,” Calegari says of her co-founder. “[The pirate store] ended up being the perfect way to introduce the programming to the community.”
Next, Eggers asked Calegari to design the first program. Up for the challenge, Calegari tackled it by going directly to a prime resource—San Francisco’s teachers. “One of the major components that makes 826 Valencia so strong is that we work at a teachers behest. We ask them what their dreams are, then help make their dreams come true.”
In 2002, Calegari hit the streets going from summer camps to summer schools alerting the public to 826 Valencia’s availability. Still, the organization’s opening met with empty seats. More elbow grease was needed. In the fall, visits were made to local schools. “The minute we took all the support, help, positive energy and skills into the classrooms and kids were able to experience undivided attention from people who were really delighted with the written word, we had a lot more success with kids coming to find us.”
Slowly, children began trickling in. One of the first lessons learned by 826’s founders – better workshop framing. “You can’t be bland and boring,” says Calegari. “If you want children to come, you can’t call a class Journalism, you call it This Class Sucks.”
Kids leave 826 workshops not only with purchased pirate supplies, but something much more dear: the fruits of their writing in books produced at 826. "It’s having this tangible evidence of their voice in hand, that leaves them wanting more. They know internally that they have a voice and important stories to tell, but it’s not until they go through the process of becoming published authors that they learn the joy of writing,” Calegari says.
As attendance has burgeoned, so has 826’s popularity. Growing with the demand has been, of course, an increased need of funding to cover infrastructure expenses. That being said, a National Board of Directors is now in place to oversee 826 centers established in New York, Seattle, Los Angeles, Ann Arbor, Boston, Chicago and Washington, DC. Its influence can be additionally seen in numerous national and international satellite programs that have adopted the program.
Though each facility has its own theme, from adventure travel to Bigfoot research, one thing they all have in common is a constant stream of volunteers. “Members of the community are lining up during their free time to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with a child they don’t know,” says Calegari. “I can’t think of anything more generous and amazing.” Carrying this further, she says, “Those intergenerational connections in safe places that don’t normally happen is pretty exciting.”
Calegari’s enthusiasm is infectious. Of the world at large she says, “I’m hopelessly optimistic that we’re going to continue to read books and tell stories.” For those who have a goal in mind that involves change, she offers this advice: “You don’t have to go at it thinking, ‘How am I going to transform 16,000 school districts in the country?’ Instead, you can spend an hour working with one child. Even itty bitty steps can make a profound difference.”
Since 826 Valencia's establishment, Calegari recently produced the film American Teacher. “I wanted to elevate the teaching profession, make it sustainable and honor teachers legitimately.” How she plans to follow up on that particular goal? She’s setting her sights high, and suspicions are, those that know the value of having their voices heard—as well as a myriad of pirates, superheroes and time travelers—will be backing her efforts.
To learn more about 826National and how you can join their crew of tutors, find out more at 826national.org.