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826 Valencia: A great example of giving to schools

Giving to schools can take many forms: volunteering, fundraising or even running for school board. A group called 826 Valencia is giving back by teaching kids that writing is fun.

Sixth-graders in the Writers' Room
Sixth-graders in the Writers' Room

By Marian Wilde , GreatSchools Staff

When a few writers and educators in San Francisco decided to give back to schools, they started a unique organization called 826 Valencia to teach kids, ages 6 to 18, the joy of writing. That was six years ago and no one imagined it would grow into a national organization with branches in seven cities. Or that the volunteers at 826 Valencia - famous writers, talented tutors and regular citizens - would produce such amazing results.

Inspiring kids to write

A San Francisco public middle school, on a gray, drizzly morning. Two boys work at a table covered in scattered papers. A tutor sits beside them.
Boy 1 to Boy 2: "It's a rhyming title!"
Boy 2: "I love poetry."
Boy 1: "Let's read all the poems we wrote."
Sixth-graders in the Writers' Room Boy 2: "Let's read all the 'Families at Home in 2008' poems."
Boy 1: "Yeah, [said with emphatic rhythm] 'Families at Home in 2008.'"
The bell rings, signaling the end of the period.
Boy 1 and 2: "Oh, nooo!"
Reluctantly, the boys pack up their papers and shuffle out of class, continuing to chatter about their poems.
Tutor to fellow tutor nearby: "Eleven-year-old boys reading poetry to each other. That's pretty awesome."

This scene is not from a feel-good Hollywood movie. In fact, this scene is not fiction. It occurred early one morning in November 2008, in a vibrant, imaginatively decorated space called the Writers' Room, a project created by 826 Valencia.

826 Valencia takes off

826 Valencia, a thriving community organization that combines learning and fun, is a place where many a young person realizes, perhaps for the first time, that writing can be exciting.

Co-founded in 2002 by author Dave Eggers and educator Ninive Calegari, 826 Valencia (named after its street address) has grown from a single store-front tutoring center into a national program in seven cities. "The original idea was that, clearly, there is a need to support students," says Leigh Lehman, 826 Valencia's executive director, "and Dave and Ninive had lots of talented friends with time on their hands. They wanted to bridge those two worlds."

The Writers' Room: Deepening the community connection

"We grew quickly at first, but now we're going more slowly," says Lehman. "We're trying to deepen our connection within the community, and one way that is happening is through our Writers' Rooms at James Lick Middle School and Everett Middle School. The idea is to support teachers at the school site by creating a special room where middle-school students can receive tutoring from community members and work in Book of student writing concert with the teacher's curriculum."

It took over a year to bring the Writers' Room at James Lick Middle School, which was the second one to be built in the San Francisco school district, from concept to reality. The first step was to find a school community that was a good fit. Once that happened, 826 worked closely with the principal and the teachers to integrate the program into the school day and year. "The teachers create projects, and I meet with them before they begin the unit to determine at what point it will be most helpful to have the tutors' support," says Emilie Coulson, 826 programs assistant.

Meanwhile, 826 Valencia worked with the district to find a room at the school to transform into a space fit for flights of fancy. No room was readily available, so the school decided that one end of the school library would have to do. Working with the district for building permits required patience, but eventually a wall was built and the room decorated with wallpaper and bookshelves filled with nautical curios and adventure books, and furnished with desks, chairs and a couch. In all, 826 spent $80,000 to create and staff the room, and to produce and design publications of student work. 826 recruited and trained over 100 volunteers, three to seven of whom Coulson calls on any given day.

Maria Jose Gonzalez-Salido, a volunteer at the Writers' Room says: "I love to teach the kids to learn how to write better, either in Spanish or in English. When you are in the Writers' Room, it seems like you are in a magical place, because it doesn't look like any other classroom or any room in your house. You can immerse yourself in your imagination and write."

Comments from readers

"I started a writer's area we called the Publishing Center when my children were in grade school. We gave a tour to all the classes and showed the kids stories other students had written as well as a few that had been published by kids just like themselves. We posted their names around the school when they published a piece. Generally we'd help with editing but often they'd do the typing and illustrations. Sometimes the author who didn't like to draw paired up with the illustrator who didn't want to write. W gave them ideas for topics, opened it l or 2 hours a day, was staffed with 2 parents at a time and a computer and a work space. they made covers which were laminated and bound with coil binders. The kids gave them as birthday gifts or Mother's or Father's Day gifts. Many of the kids were very proud after they'd finished their stories. We did this for 6 years until my children were out of elementary school. Unfortunately, no one picked up the rest of the publishin! g center ball. "
"This is a wonderful project. I have five children. We started a project called The Bless You Project and created a book called The Bless You Book for Kids and another The Bless You Book for Teens. In it we had kids write to someone how they feel blessed and draw a picture. It is a wonderful way for the kids to connect and adults to connect. For the adults we did a Bless You Book. All procedes go to charities to help raise awareness of the connection that we all share. I would love to see The Bless You Books be part of this organization. The website for more info is "