Writing is hard. It’s hard even for people who write as a profession, say, like me. Or even still for people who write as a profession and are actually good at it, say, like Dave Eggers.
Eggers, an author and Pulitzer Prize finalist, founded nonprofit 826 Valencia in 2002 along with educator Nínive Calegari to make writing easier for a specific population: kids. More specifically, kids who come from under-resourced backgrounds.
It all started on 826 Valencia Street in San Francisco’s Mission District. The San Francisco Unified School District contains some of the highest-performing public schools in California, but also contains the widest gaps in performance among its students.
For many of the community’s students of color, English is not their first language. And yet it’s hardly an insight to say that English literacy is a key indicator of their future opportunities. Eggers and Calegari’s goal is to help students and their overburdened teachers by providing writing programs in the city’s areas of need. Their centers are known for their whimsical and inviting atmosphere, with unusual storefronts like the original Pirate Supply Store, where you can pick up a peg leg or a student publication.
“We are supporters of the public schools, and almost all our work is with the public schools,” Eggers told The Washington Post in a 2018 interview. “For our after-school tutoring, we work to support the students’ teachers’ lesson plans. In addition, we offer extracurricular writing opportunities, from book publishing to podcasts. When it comes to the students’ abilities with grammar, it is as varied as the students themselves.”
Eggers has one leading rule when it comes to teaching kids how to write: “Make it not boring. My God, make it not boring.”
As he explained to The Washington Post: “When it comes to reading and writing, especially for kids who are reluctant or don’t think they’re ‘good’ at either, we have to start with content. Ignore form at the start,” he says. “That is, if you want an eight-year-old to start loving to write, let them write about anything they want to. Let them write about left-handed gerbils from Uranus. Let them write about Lionel Messi. It doesn’t matter. The point is if they’re given the chance to write about what they love, they’ll be engaged.”
Extraterrestrial southpaw rodents aside, another key to engaging students is one-on-one tutelage. Volunteers are the engine that keep 826 Valencia going.
“The one-on-one attention we provide helps them build their resilience during the writing process,” says Bita Nazarian, Executive Director at 826 Valencia. “And when they share their writing with the world, they see themselves as proud, confident and skillful writers. This absolutely translates into better performance at school and beyond.”
“Let them write about left-handed gerbils from Uranus. Let them write about Lionel Messi. It doesn’t matter. The point is if they’re given the chance to write about what they love, they’ll be engaged."—Dave Eggers
Of course, a 1:1 tutor-to-student ratio is an ambitious standard to maintain. “Our biggest challenge is growth,” Nazarian says. “There’s more demand for our programs than we’re able to meet.”
But 826 has kept up with that rising demand—and then some. Eggers and Calegari also co-founded 826 National, born out of 826 Valencia’s success now with chapters across seven US cities including Chicago, Washington D.C., and New Orleans.
In 2018, over 4,000 active volunteers served 38,500 students across all of 826’s chapters, assisting over one thousand teachers in the process. The exact number of stories written about introverted dragons from Venus is still being tallied.
826 Valencia’s latest expansion is a new location in Mission Bay, an area of San Francisco where new construction will also play home to the Golden State Warriors and Dropbox’s new corporate headquarters. Following our work with 826 Valencia at their Tenderloin location, we’re eager to continue and expand our support of the organization through employee volunteering, product donations, and other service initiatives. The center is fashioned after an enchanted forest, complete with caves and unicorn horn polish.
“Managing our growth means putting the right processes in place for fundraising, volunteer recruiting, and training so we can expand into other locations,” Nazarian says. “And using Dropbox has been a big help in operationalizing those efforts. It’s been amazing to work with a company that really cares about our students, helps us amplify their voices, and works to support us in any way they can.”
To celebrate 826’s Mission Bay opening, we partnered with the Golden State Warriors, who joined us in meeting a few students on and off the court.