At 826, Students Can Be as Weird and Creative as They Want

826 centers are full of magic and learning.

I'm going to guess that you haven’t recently had the chance to have fun or be really imaginative at your job. You're certainly not thinking about what your dog would say while having a conversation with a flying mermaid on a planet made of figs. But, what if I told you there's a place trying to inject fun and imagination into young people's lives everyday? That place is your local 826 center.

826 National is a network of nonprofit creative writing and afterschool tutoring centers located in San Francisco, New York City, Los Angeles, Seattle, Ann Arbor, Boston, Chicago, and Washington D.C. Started in 2002 by writer and philanthropist Dave Eggers and educator Ninive Calegari, this collaboration between writer and educator has led to something really wonderful: a place that’s neither home nor school, but a "third place" where young people can be as weird as they want to be.

To build that atmosphere of "weirdness" we work under four premises: You can create a space filled with magic where learning can be fun; great leaps in learning can happen with one-on-one attention; strong writing skills are fundamental to future success; and you can bring a community together to help young people succeed. Last year, with the help of more than 6,000 volunteers, we were able to support 29,000 students through our five core programs—after-school tutoring, storytelling and bookmaking field trips, in-school projects, the Young Author's Publishing Project, and writing workshops.

We also combine our tutoring and writing centers with whimsical imaginative storefronts. When you walk up to our flagship center in San Francisco—the very first 826 location—826 Valencia, you encounter our Pirate Store with supplies for the working buccaneer. Inside the store you will find Peg Leg Oil, eye patches and Scurvy Be Gone. But it's what goes on in the back of the store, past the velvet rope, where the real magic happens. That’s where the students work with their volunteers on homework (any subject) and creative workshops.

To extend our reach, we started inviting school classes to participate in our Storytelling and Bookmaking workshops. We also deploy volunteers into classrooms to work with teachers as a resource to assist with writing assignments. In addition, our Young Authors Publishing Project gives all of the students participating in our program the opportunity to become a published author.

826 supporters across the nation have recognized that this model is a way to engage young people in their education, and get volunteers to donate their time—and to have fun doing it. The model has been adopted and replicated in our eight centers across the nation. Each has a different store theme that reflects the local flavor—826NYC runs the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co., and 826DC runs the Museum of Unnatural History, for example—but each has the same commitment to celebrating weirdness every day.

You have to leave your expectations, your preconceptions at the door. Each of our spaces is where kids—and being fun and really imaginative—rule. It's why our students and volunteers keep coming back.

Ten years later, 826 is now a movement that has expanded beyond the US and is being picked up by other cities across the globe. We want to share our model with you as well, so over the next year, each of our sites will be sharing their stories with the GOOD community.

We welcome you to volunteer at a center, too. We need after-school tutors, designers, writers for our publications and products, people with retail experience to help with our stores, etc. All our programs are free of charge so every little bit of your help counts. Who knows, maybe you'll take a little bit of our kind of weirdness with you into the rest of your life.

Photo via 826 National

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