For almost 10 years, a unique non-profit organization called 826 has been helping students across the United States become better writers by tapping into their creativity. Founded in San Francisco by the American author Dave Eggers and the educator Nínive Calegari, the 826 program has become so successful that it is now in seven additional U.S. cities.
In the middle of a mostly Latino neighborhood, the address 826 Valencia has become famously fun for many students and a curiosity for visitors. A pirate supply store greets everyone.
By coming to 826 through a pirate store, Executive Director Leigh Lehman wants students to be in a creative mood.
“This is not school; this is not a tutoring center. This is a place for me to be myself and to find my voice and find my creativity and excel,” Leigh said.
The goal of 826 Valencia is to help public school students between six and 18 years of age write creatively.
During the day, classes come for field trips and volunteers help with writing projects. After school, students come for tutoring and creative writing. Many of the children here are from immigrant working families.
“A lot of the parents don’t speak English as a first language so it’s harder for them to help their children with school work. So we’re trying to provide the services that parents wouldn’t otherwise be able to offer their kids for free,” Leigh said.
The program has been so successful that it's now in eight different cities in the United States, serving 30,000 students.
From this pirate supply store in San Francisco, to a store for spies in Chicago, each 826 branch has a unique theme to fuel creativity.
826 National Chief Executive Gerald Richards says due to budget cuts, arts education is disappearing in the public schools and so is the ability for students to use their imagination.
“I think there is much more of a focus on science, technology, engineering and math. There’s a lot of a focus on testing and a lot of the teaching that’s going on in the schools is focusing on the test and passing the test rather than thinking about how do we get kids to think. How do we get them to reason,” he said.
Richards says being creative and innovative are important even in the sciences. Knowing how to write well will also help students get to college and beyond.
“For jobs and employers and just every subject is the ability to communicate well really does open a lot of doors,” Richards said.
Leigh Lehman says 826 also builds confidence by publishing and selling the students' work at places such as the pirate supply store and on the Internet.
Sofia Marquez is proud her story is now in this book. “That verification that their voice matters and that their stories matter and that their experiences are valid and important and relevant to other people,” she said. “I get to use my imagination -- that’s why I like writing.”
Last year alone, 826 chapters across the country published a total of 944 volumes of student writing.