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

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.”  

826 has even produced passports, a badge of pride for 826 loyalists who’ve visited every center. This is the kind of covetable loyalty that 826 engenders, which stems from the seemingly simple combination of doing good while having fun.  

By the Numbers

In addition to the uniqueness of its storefront model, the cool factor provided by 826’s celebrity friends has raised the organization’s profile. Founder and best-selling author Dave Eggers is literary royalty in his own right. This year’s anniversary luncheon celebrating 826 Valencia’s 10th year starred comedians Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein of “Portlandia” fame and brought in over $150,000 for the center. Fundraising events have featured authors Michael Chabon, Michael Ondaatje, Luis Urrea and Darrin Strauss; filmmaker Judd Apatow; actress Molly Ringwald; and musician Jeff Tweedy. It’s a symbiotic relationship for the centers—celebrities prove their cerebral bent by their involvement, while the nonprofit harnesses their cachet to attract supporters and capital.  

It seems that everyone is a fan of 826—stars, parents, volunteers, and leaders rave about the successes its programs have seen—but no opinions are more important than those of the students the group serves. Nearly 90 percent of students surveyed said that 826 tutors have helped them to improve their writing assignments. Test results, too, show a dramatic improvement—over half of the students who participated in after-school tutoring increased their scores on the Test of Written Language (TOWL) writing assessment. And 91 percent of parents reported that their child was getting better grades, and enjoyed reading more, after a year of after-school tutoring.

Richards chalks up much of this success to refusing to underestimate the power of students’ creativity and abilities. “People say the kids don’t care, but they’re very proud of the work that they do. The kids are very invested in it. They’re invested in their own education and are really excited that there are people who are paying attention. For a lot of kids, either their parents work all the time or they don’t have adults who are actually paying attention to them.” And so, 826 offers them the support they need to succeed academically.

Yalie Kamara, volunteer and events coordinator for the San Francisco center knows how important that kind of support can be; she herself is an 826 success story. As a high school student, Kamara earned one of 826’s prestigious writing scholarships and went on to graduate from UC Riverside and earn her master’s degree from Middlebury College. She returned to her roots after realizing how special 826 was to her. It's fulfilling to be working in this capacity about a decade after first being involved with this organization,” she says. “It's symbolic to be back at this point in my life to be part of a community that I admire.”   

Kamara is just one of many whose lives have been changed thanks to 826 Valencia’s efforts; though the pirate supply store may render 826 Valencia see-worthy, it’s the results that count. In 2011, the San Francisco center served 6,097 students, supported 183 teachers through in-class programs, and published almost 175 different volumes of student writing. And the centers in other cities are just as successful: in 2011, 826 Seattle was honored by First Lady Michelle Obama with the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award for its work with students. The Boston Phoenix nominated 826 Boston for “Best Nonprofit” three years running, and the Boston Globe named 826 Boston the “Best Place to Volunteer” in 2008. 

And volunteer, they do. During creative writing workshops, after-school tutoring sessions, and on field trips, volunteers are paired with students aged 6 to 18 to work on publishing projects and homework assignments. Richards calls volunteers, critical to nearly every mission 826 undertakes, the nonprofit’s “sweet spot.” Nationwide, the organization now has over 6,000 volunteers.  

Managing a volunteer corps of this size is an enormous task. Nearly every center has a dedicated volunteer coordinator to handle the volume of applications and center events. It’s needed—last year, 826 Valencia alone saw 700 new volunteers come through its doors, and counted 1,600 active volunteers.

Richards says they go through each application individually. Once approved, each volunteer is fingerprinted, background-checked through the police department, and sent to get a tetanus shot. The investigation process is a requirement for the school districts, but it serves 826 just as well—the organization realizes the integrity of their volunteers must be unquestionable. This doesn’t deter prospective applicants, though. When the Washington, DC center opened, the waiting list for volunteers had 1,000 people on it.

Once volunteers are oriented, every chapter offers training specific to each program. For field trips, volunteers are taught how to handle groups of students, and how to engage the shy ones. In book project training, volunteers learn about the publishing process and what to do when a student produces questionable material. Nervous volunteers are reminded that they were once third-graders with book reports, too.

Volunteers are left to their own discretion about how to engage students, but it’s made clear that they are not teachers, parents or baby-sitters—students who come to the centers are expected to be prepared with homework or projects and ready to work. Tutors are instructed to look for every paper’s potential, whether the student has a great grasp on grammar or a flair for the descriptive, and to point out areas than need improvement in a positive way. In every case, tutors are encouraged to help students think critically but creatively, and come to conclusions for themselves. It’s a formula that works for both students and volunteers. 

Tutor Jessica Partch has been volunteering at 826 Valencia since it began in 2002. She recounts how she felt after a day she spent supporting teachers on a field trip, then returned to the center for a drop-in after-school tutoring session. “I have never been that useful! I felt like I was in the right place at the right time. And generally, when I’m here, that’s the sensation I have.”

Though the primary focus of programs is tutoring, not every volunteer is cut out for working directly with students. “Kids can be intimidating,” Richards acknowledges. “A lot of our volunteers haven’t been teachers. The kids are wily and they have questions about things…I think Chicago has someone who is an intern who wanted to volunteer, but doesn’t like kids. It turns out she’s a number cruncher and a statistician. So she does reports and all these numbers for us. She works in the administrative side, and that’s important too.”

Just as each center has its own character, so do the volunteers in each location. In Washington, DC, volunteers skew younger, many right out of college. In Michigan, the center is near the campus in Ann Arbor, and attracts University of Michigan students. In San Francisco, many are older and retired. Richards notes that though volunteers come from all backgrounds and walks of life, they’re bonded by the connection they have with the students and their commitment to the organization. “The one thing they all have in common is they all really love working with the kids. They’re all passionate. They share that passion about the mission and are passionate about what’s going on.”  

Passion of another kind has made its mark on the organization, as well. In Michigan, the program director married one of the volunteers. Their wedding was on 8/26.

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