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826 Valencia: Transforming a Community, One Student at a Time

826 has blossomed from a noble experiment into one of the top innovators and influencers in the education field.

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Nestled among the boutique coffee shops, dive bars and playgrounds of San Francisco’s Valencia Street, sits a bustling wood-paneled store, stocked with supplies for the aspiring swashbuckler. The store, located at number 826, does brisk trade in eye patches, spyglasses and scurvy cure, but it also harbors a secret many of the shoppers don’t know: it’s a front.

Beyond the cash register lies another room – this one packed with work tables, school supplies and lively students. Books line shelves from floor to ceiling, and fridge-worthy student artwork dots the walls. This back room is the heart of San Francisco's sweetheart nonprofit, 826 Valencia. The wildly popular organization—now with eight chapters under the umbrella of 826 National—has crafted an unprecedented agenda around improving the writing skills of its students, over 90 percent of whom come from historically underserved communities. Through programs such as in-school field trips and after-school book publishing projects, students are encouraged to hone their creativity and explore the written word, working in one-on-one partnerships with trained volunteer tutors. 

Since 826 Valencia’s founding in 2002, it has blossomed from a noble experiment into one of the top innovators and influencers in the education field. When 826 National’s CEO Gerald Richards met with U.S. Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan to talk about the nonprofit’s programs and progress, Duncan was already well aware of 826’s reach. Richards was thrilled to have the opportunity to push 826’s goal: “It was a chance for us to be able to say, “You should really be focused on writing and arts education, not testing.” The creativity for kids is totally shot in our education system. You [can’t] create an innovative society and an innovative country if kids can’t think creatively.”  

Every inch of the center on Valencia Street fosters 826’s mission to inspire students’ creativity. The space that co-founders Dave Eggers and Ninive Calegari secured to house the tutoring center was zoned for retail, requiring them to sell something—anything. They soon realized that the space, with its rich timber and heavy beams, lent itself to a maritime theme. Today, Richards laughs about the happy accident. “So you look at this space and you look at all the wood and it looks kind of like a ship. It’s almost like we should sell pirate supplies, in a very tongue-in-cheek way. [So they thought] ‘We should sell pirate supplies!’… And then [the supplies] started to sell. They became entrepreneurs almost by accident -- unintentional social entrepreneurs. Suddenly, [the store] began to draw revenue, and began to attract tourists.”

Though 826 Valencia is the nonprofit’s anchor, each of the eight chapters coast-to-coast has its own retail theme and personality, ranging from the Time Travel Mart attached to the Los Angeles chapter to the Superhero Supply Company established in Brooklyn, NY. But there’s more to the stores than kitsch factor. The Washington, DC chapter’s retail outlet, the Museum of Unnatural History, is purported to showcase rare specimens and oddities; visitors are welcomed by the massive skeleton of a fictional creature. These and other elements of the physical surroundings are woven into the educational exercises students undertake. As Richards explains, “[The center] lets you make your own animal. It’s educational. It’s learning about animals and [that] fur keeps animals warm… [It’s] a learning tool, but also it de-stigmatizes the tutoring aspect. The kids say they’re not just going to a tutoring center, they’re going to the pirate store or the superhero store at 826.”  

As word of the wacky retail stores has spread, they’ve become a viable revenue source for the organization, and now account for 10 to 15 percent of 826’s income. In addition to bringing in revenue, the stores also help attract interest to 826’s mission and work. Richards notes, “You can walk into a pirate store on a Saturday and it’s packed with tourists… You can hear ten different languages being spoken. It’s like that at every store. You can hear people coming from all over the world. You do meet a lot of people who have been to every one of the stores. They travel around the country going to the different centers.”  

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