Here in D.C., there are no shortages of volunteer opportunities. You can’t throw a stone without hitting a cause to support or a group in need of help. That doesn’t mean new non-profits aren’t welcome in a city full of them, especially one that may bring an outlet for pirate supplies.
Dave Eggers’ 826 project, which focuses on giving young children the opportunities to improve their reading comprehension and writing skills, combines a healthy sense of whimsy with the one-on-one attentions that produce great students. And now they have proper showing right here in the District with the new 826DC.
826DC is the latest iteration of 826 National, a charity founded by author Dave Eggers and educator Ninive Calegari as a means to reach out to neighborhood school children and improve their writing abilities. It began in Egger’s home city of San Francisco at the now famous 826 Valencia. Here, local writers and volunteers offered one-on-one tutoring sessions with children who came into the center after school. The charity was built around the flexible hours of its volunteers — if one could come in for just a couple of hours, it was still doing a world of good for some children.
826DC is the new name of what used to be the Capitol Letters Writing Center. The Writing Center was founded three years ago by a group of D.C. residents who, inspired by the 826 Valencia program and its offshoots across the country, decided to form a similar program in the interests of the local student body.
The organization pulled volunteers who were willing to work with children on their writing abilities into their Columbia Heights center, and then reached out to local schools to gauge interest. The group worked outside of the school system, supplementing classes with their own unique brand of teaching, hoping to pull not only the best students — those who they would like to see published in the future — but also those students in trouble with their grades or their home lives. Drawing on recently in-vogue education theories, the personalized help is thought to be one of the biggest boosts to a student’s academic ability.
Of course, they had to get children excited about coming to read, which is where the most famous aspect of the 826 project comes in. In the original 826 Valencia, the writing center’s property was zoned as a commercial business, so to avoid legal hassle, the center opened up a storefront where they began to sell pirate supplies.
Contracting out local builders, the store’s insides were transformed into the wooden aesthetic of a ship’s hull and stocked with fake peg legs and eye patches in an assortment of colors. Behind the shop itself was the writing center, with all of the classroom accoutrements one would expect from an academic learning space. It was just hidden behind this façade, one where children would be eager to explore and patronize. Miraculously enough, it made a profit — enough to make the writing center a self-sustaining organization.
This business model was adopted when the organization was exported to other cities. In New York, 826 opened a Superhero supply store — a fitting shop for Gotham — and Los Angeles had a Time Travelers’ Mart. The new 826DC is being redesigned as “The Museum of Unnatural History,” which will sell, among other things, “Hopeless Diamonds” and other necessary items for little explorers. The storefront’s goal is to inject some whimsy into the learning process, wrapping the sour pill of education in a candy shell.
For those who are somewhat disillusioned by non-profit groups trying to help a school system that many people are quick to disparage, 826DC offers a model for the kind of supplementary education experience that seems to connect with kids — even the most hard to reach, in school systems that seem to struggle. The 826 program even has physical proof of their efforts. Anthologies of writing samples from their kids are published out of each city, providing evidence of their efforts in the funny, sad and enlightening views of the members of society we sometimes ignore.
Students interested in volunteering at the new center in D.C. are encouraged to sign up for orientations. Spots are filling up fast, and the next few months have been completely booked already. As part of the launch of the new project, the writing center will hold a preview event featuring Dave Eggers himself. It won’t be for cheap — admission runs a cool $250. The event is aimed at showing people in the city what other cities have already produced, and how this volunteer project might just be a jolt in the arm for a city that sometimes feels overrun with non-profits. But then again, those non-profits probably won’t sell whimsically branded adventure gear to the people they are helping.