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Best-selling author Dave Eggers is an unassuming man. When he sheepishly approached the podium before a nearly full Gaston Hall on April 7, he introduced himself by making a self-effacing joke. The shy Eggers did not try to hide his public speaking anxiety.
“I was really nervous for many weeks before this event … and before I came up here I got locked in a hallway,” Eggers said. “It was like a perfect Spinal Tap moment, where we were going to be locked in this stairway all evening, scrounging for provisions.”
Fortunately for everyone involved, Eggers made it out of the hallway to discuss 826DC, the latest in a series of non-profit writing centers that provide free tutoring, self-publishing, and workshops to elementary through high school students.
Eggers was anything but sheepish when he started talking about 826. As he animatedly explained to those gathered in Gaston Hall, the organization was born of Eggers’s own experiences as a professional writer. He had been stunningly successful—Eggers’s book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius reached No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list—but nevertheless was personally unfulfilled. Success allowed Eggers to devote all of his time to writing, just as he had always dreamed, but he was left feeling isolated.
While living and writing in Brooklyn, Eggers would walk by schools and yearn to connect with the kids, to have a positive impact, but there was no conduit to facilitate such interactions.
“Meanwhile, I was hearing so many of my friends who teach keep talking about growing class sizes, budget cuts, and No Child Left Behind restricting the freedom of teachers as professionals,” he said. “They kept saying, ‘If only I could clone myself I could give undivided attention to every student.’”
Eggers set out to create just that, a “clone army” of writers—journalists, students, and all manner of volunteers interested in giving back to the community. The result was 826 Valencia, located in the Mission District of San Francisco. Since the founding of 826 Valencia in 2002, seven other branches have opened in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, Ann Arbor, Boston, and now D.C.
The story of 826DC begins with the Capitol Letters Writing Center, an independent organization that was inspired by the 826 model. Incorporated in April 2008, Capitol Letters started out as a small group of tutors lacking funding, a physical location, or even many students. However, the band of writers, educators, and non-profit workers persevered despite the initial struggle to gain momentum and make connections at local schools.
Through the early period of Capitol Letters, the group was regularly in direct contact with the 826 National organization, but it seemed for some time that the group would not become an official chapter of 826.
“[826 National’s] hard line was that we’re not taking on any new chapters,” 826DC Program Manager Mike Scalise said. “Then, two things happened. One was that we had some really ambitious people who are really resourceful and we made major strides in our first year … Also the climate changed in D.C., and it became an area that people were energized about.”
Soon enough, 826 National started taking a more serious interest in Capitol Letters, which began transitioning the organization into an official 826 chapter, with Naomi Ayala as its executive director.
Ayala, an award-winning poet and writer who previously served as the coordinator for curriculum and instruction at the National Council of La Raza’s Center for Community Educational Excellence, was initially reluctant when a friend involved with 826 approached her.
“I got an e-mail asking me to please apply for the position, and wrote back that I’m happy [in my current job],” Ayala said. “And they pushed and they pushed, and twisted my arm and it turned out that I got and accepted the job.”
Despite the strain of formally establishing 826DC while balancing a career as a writer—Ayala recently completed a book of poetry—she expressed a sense of satisfaction with the progress made by the organization and a sense of optimism about its effects on the children, even if she can’t always see the results first hand.
“It’s a very intense job, and my days are 12 to 15 hours, [so] I miss [the] kids in this way,” Ayala said. “But this is a different way of being close, knowing that I’m making things possible for them in a different way than I ever have in my life.”
Ultimately she credits 826DC’s core of roughly 30 volunteers, many with other demanding careers, who regularly devote significant amounts of time to support the project.
Jen Girdish is one of those volunteers. Girdish, who joined the group to use her MFA degree in a non-profit setting, serves as the book project coordinator, assisting in the creation of 826DC’s annual student publication.
Published collections of students’ work are a staple of the 826 program. 826DC’s first book, to be published in May, is called Hold Onto Your Seats and will feature an introduction by George Pelecanos, an accomplished crime writer and one of the writers behind the HBO series The Wire. The work presents the advice and thoughts 64 high school seniors would have given themselves as freshmen, to help cope with the joys and challenges of high school.
Ivan Ango, a student at Cardozo Senior High School who contributed an essay to the book, was mentioned by many involved with 826DC as an example of the outstanding work that can come from young writers. Originally from Cameroon, Ango wrote of the struggles surrounding his attempts to learn English, the occasional outbursts of violence at his school, and his eventual success as an athlete. Ango’s account of his first romantic encounter, complete with impressive symbolism and rhetorical language, demonstrates the potential that 826’s student publishing unleashes.
“You will have someone,” Ango wrote. “She will make you laugh when the strong, old wind outside slaps your lips and freezes them. She is not your mother or your sister, but her ravishing beauty will attract you more than any of her body parts … I can imagine your heart pounding as you read this … She will be your girlfriend, but I’m not capable of telling you for how long. I don’t have much time, so I will leave you with this. Your character will make you, but your roots will never be loose. Sincerely, Ivan.”
826 tries to take a project-based approach to their work with students. In some cases, tutors go directly into D.C. public schools and help students produce a creative work that is published, bound, and ready to go home by the end of the day. Having a tangible product of the students’ work goes a long way toward the organization’s mission of fostering more creativity among young people—at a time when teachers are often forced to teach to standardized tests.
That approach clearly isn’t working in District of Columbia Public Schools. In 2009, only 47% of students achieved proficiency in math and reading—actually up from 37% in reading and 31% in math in 2007.
“I think the 826 concept is encouraging and definitely necessary,” Georgetown graduate student and former public school teacher Kristen Werder (GRD ‘11) wrote in an e-mail. “As schools have fewer and fewer resources and yet more students … the issues that are labeled ‘school issues’ are also community issues, and that the best way to improve schools is by bridging the gap between schools and communities, class work and ‘the real world.’“
826 attempts to bring “the real world” into the classroom with its in-house field trips.
“There are in-house field trips that last two hours and students are producing something that they’re finishing and it’s tangible, project-based, and incredibly fun,” 826 National Development and Outreach Coordinator Erin Archuleta said. “There are professional artists who are doing the illustrations so it all is incredibly beautiful, but it’s something that the students take home themselves.”
In order to make a difference and reach as many students as possible, 826DC, of course, needs money. Other 826 chapters around the country generate revenue from themed stores located at the entrance of their tutoring space. In fact, such a quirky storefront is a requirement to become an official 826 organization.
“The store front is one of those ways to recruit people from the community,” Archuleta said. “Each center has its own theme that is engaging and fun and imaginative … and each theme store complements individual donors and foundations who support the work of 826.”
The stores have become one of 826’s trademarks, but they began as a product of chance. When Eggers and others started 826 Valencia, the space they wanted was zoned for retail, and all they were marketing was free tutoring.
“This building had kind of the look of a hull of a ship,” Eggers said. “So one of the carpenters that was working with us said, ‘Why don’t you sell pirate supplies?’ We thought about that a little bit, did some market research and realized there wasn’t another market operation to compete with us in selling affordably priced supplies for buccaneers.”
The result was the Independent Pirate Supply Store, which not only provides a revenue stream for the operation but also has proven to be quite a draw with the target audience for 826. It’s not uncommon to see tutees playfully twirling in capes, clad in eye patches, or sporting crooked hooks over their hands.
Now students across the country come to learn at places like the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Store or the Greater Boston Bigfoot Research Institute. 826DC will feature the Unnatural History Museum. Designers are still working out the products that will appear at the store, but if history is any guide, it will be impressive. Take the cherry-scented diversion deployment system at the Greenwood Space Travel Supply Company in Seattle, which emits “distraction of spatial, ocular, and olfactory nature in one fell swoop with just a squeeze of the System’s ergonomically pleasing grip,” or the banana cell phone cover from the Boring Store in Chicago that “cleverly disguises your phone … [so] the enemy will simply think you are a produce enthusiast.”
A writing center can’t run on the sales of unnatural historical artifacts alone, though. 826DC also has a number of prominent supporters in the local community. A recent fundraiser for the organization, held at the Adams Morgan home of author and journalist Christopher Hitchens, featured appearances by Christopher Buckley and Congressman Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.).
As 826DC quickly approaches the date when a physical tutoring space will open in the Adams Morgan/Columbia Heights area, the longstanding dream of the original Capitol Letters team is about to be realized.
“It was so difficult for all of us for a long time,” Scalise said. “It’s almost as though there was a relationship and we had been talking about dating for a long time, and finally figured out a way to make it work.”
Going forward, manpower is one of the critical challenges facing the organization. Nationally, 826 served 22,000 students last year with 4,000 volunteers, including over 1,000 at 826NYC alone. The organization can only serve as many students as they have slots available with tutors. Opening a physical center is only the first step for 826DC.
Tutors often rave about the experience of working with the children. One of Girdish’s experiences with a young tutee illustrates the rewards of working with 826. Initially unenthusiastic about writing and reluctant to revise her piece, Girdish said working with this student was like “pulling teeth.” But over time Girdish was able to reach her tutee.
“At the release party last year she read a piece and pulled her parents over to introduce me to them,” Girdish said.
According to Girdish, the girl told her parents, “This is the girl that made me write. Thank you so much. I never would have done it without you, and I really enjoyed it.”
“It’s very rewarding, hearing that from a student,” Girdish said.
Speaking at Georgetown, Eggers tried to convey that message to students. In order to be successful, 826DC needs all the volunteers it can get.
“We are only limited by the volunteer power and the number of volunteers we can amass,” Eggers said. “I think they have a few hundred on the roster now and probably need a few thousand. So, I’m hoping that everyone will sign up.”
“Any couple of hours that you give to one student can be life changing.”