“Writing should be joyful and strange,” acclaimed Bay Area author Dave Eggers told The Standard on the symbolic birthday of his youth writing center, 826 Valencia. The SF-based nonprofit, co-founded by Eggers with educator Nínive Calegari and named for the street address in the Mission on which it was born, now has eight affiliated chapters across America and turned 20 this year on “8/26 Day.” But much of its mission—to empower under-resourced youth through individualized writing help—still remains the same.
Every weekday, students stream in from across San Francisco for one-on-one tutoring help, field trips or writing workshops at one of 826 Valencia’s three writing centers in the city. These whimsical learning outposts, each designed around a fantastical theme, like an enchanted forest or the department store of a “royal traveling pufferfish,” encourage students to be as creative as the walls that surround them.
For instance, 826 Valencia’s original location in the Mission is themed like a pirate supply shop: in part to get around San Francisco’s bureaucratic zoning rules, in practice to inspire students’ imaginations and help writers of all levels feel comfortable sharing their voice with the world. To uplift student voices, 826 publishes students’ poems, short stories and articles in books and periodicals.
“... For the kids who came into 826 Valencia for extra help with their homework, the Pirate Store had an important de-stigmatizing effect,” wrote Eggers in the intro to Unnecessarily Beautiful Spaces for Young Minds on Fire, an image-driven book showcasing 826’s writing centers and places like them. “... For reluctant writers, or kids who learned differently, working in such a bizarre and rule-flouting place unleashed their creative sides. ... And in such a place, every kid was welcome and free to be loose and weird.”
That’s how Osvaldo Márquez-Gómez, an alum of the program who now serves on 826’s board of directors, felt when he walked into 826 for the first time almost 20 years ago. The first in his family to graduate elementary school, middle school, high school and college, he credits 826 for helping him to achieve these milestones and make a life for himself in the financial industry today.
“After-school tutoring was a place where I felt safe. I felt seen,” Márquez-Gómez told The Standard. “The space, it allows for creativity to be nourished. […] And it just sparks a sense of curiosity.”
That capacious sense of wonder for writing continues to this day with 826’s tutors and students.
“It's really cool to see creativity explode in a sense. Like, it really snowballs,” said Robert Sylvia, a tutor at 826 Valencia’s Mission Bay Center.
“It's fun, and it's creative. And it's like a fluid, friendly environment for learners like me,” said Latifah A., a fourth grader at San Francisco Islamic School and a regular at 826 Valencia’s Mission Bay Center, who now calls writing her “forever life partner.”
“Writing is now my soulmate,” she said.