The Uncommon Life

Why it’s Better to Give
with 826 National

July 9, 2017

“Once upon a time there was a sheep named Oddy. He was a regular sheep in the grasslands with all the other sheep. Then, one day he fell in the Arctic sea, and he saw a big wave. It pushed him to shore towards a cyclops’s cave. Oddy took big steps towards the cave. The cyclops had a superpower that could turn anyone into a cyclops like him.”

Pretty intriguing first paragraph, right? It was written by Wahaaj, a young creative writing student who “likes pizza and french fries, and he loves to spell Mississippi.”

Wahaaj’s story is funny, imaginative, and might not exist without the help of our newest Better to Give partner, 826 National. Through their network of seven—soon to be eight—chapters across the US, 826 National has helped thousands of kids like Wahaaj let their imaginations run free, develop writing skills, and build confidence. The non-profit organization takes an uncommon, but extremely effective, approach to teaching writing to students age 6-18. They are passionate about their mission “to empower students with the skills to write their own paths forward, undefined by circumstance.” The 826 Network believes in the power of making learning fun, and the power that quality education can have in influencing children’s lives. All of this, along with their clever storefronts, dedicated staff and volunteers, free programs, and general ability to make every person who learns about them proclaim something along the lines of, “That is SO cool!” made us realize that we really, really wanted to join forces with them.

Now that 826 National is a part of our Better to Give program, you can select them to receive a $1 donation from us (at no cost to you) each time you shop at UncommonGoods. These donations will help 826 Network writing and tutoring centers across the country provide services to kids in under-resourced communities.

Aneshia’s quote was featured in 826 National’s 2015-2016 annual report, produced by 826 National & Parallel-Play

One of the most unique things about 826 chapters is that each writing and tutoring center is disguised. Here in Brooklyn, 826NYC masquerades as the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co. Entering the store is magical in itself, but get past the capes, evil-testing machine, and cans of condensed superpowers, and you’ll find yourself in a large, library-like learning center. That’s once you find the secret door, of course.

If superheros aren’t your thing, but the supernatural does pique your interest, Tivoli’s Astounding Magic Supply Company, AKA 826DC, might be more your style. 826 Boston is home to The Greater Boston Bigfoot Research Institute. In Chicago, 826CHI is incognito as The Wicker Park Secret Agent Supply Co. 826michigan is teaching kids to write (possibly while teaching robots to love) at Liberty Street Robot Supply & Repair in Ann Arbor and The Detroit Robot Factory. Time travelers can get needed supplies for whenever they’re going at 826LA’s Time Travel Marts in Echo Park and Mar Vista. The first 826 chapter, 826 Valencia in San Francisco, hosts The Pirate Supply Store & King Carl’s Emporium. Soon, the organization’s newest chapter will be a gathering place for kids with stories to tell… and a haunt for the subjects of ghost stories: 826 New Orleans will open the Haunting Supply Co. in 2018.

As the 826 Network continues to grow, established like-minded organizations are encouraged to join the network and get in on the fun. Currently, the Mid-Continent Oceanographic Institute in St. Paul, Minnesota and Chapter 510 and The Department of Make Believe in Oakland, California are officially participating in the 826 chapter development process.

Haikus written by 8th grade students at Everette Middle School, photo via 826 Valencia’s Instagram

These quirky storefronts are a great way to make kids feel comfortable with getting extra help with their schoolwork. The original center, 826 Valencia’s Pirate Supply Store, started the tradition when founders author Dave Eggers and educator Nínive Calegari learned that the tutoring center they were planning was actually zoned for retail, and therefore had to contain a commercial business. The inside of the building resembled the hull of a pirate ship, and, to use an oxymoron, the unusual convention got its start.

That first center opened its doors in 2002. In 2008, 826 National was established, and now all of the 826 chapters have a shared mission and offer five core programs: after-school tutoring, field trips, workshops, Young Authors’ Book Project, and in-school programs. All of these programs are free for families, classes, and schools. In addition to serving students, they work to improve communities by “foster[ing] generations of creative writers and thinkers, who together will define a better future.”

In their 2015-2016 annual report, 826 National CEO Gerald Richards shared a compelling statement about how 826 Network programs really can make a lasting impact: “People often forget that literacy is the ability to read and write well, and writing often takes a second seat in the discussion about literacy. The 826 Network aims to change that. We are passionate about writing and its ability to change our students’ lives. Writing is a powerful act for our students—they use it to communicate their thoughts and desires, tell stories of love and loss, grief and triumph. Writing helps you make sense of what you read; writing helps you make sense of the world. ”

Prose on love written by a 4th grade student at 826CHI, photo via 826 Valencia’s Instagram

The report also provides some sobering statistics that illustrate just how needed programs like those offered by the 826 Network are: “3 out of 4 12th grade students in the US do not perform at grade-proficient level in writing. Beyond that, 9 out of 10 Hispanic and Black students are not at grade-proficient level.”

In addition to helping students improve their writing skills, 826 National helps students build confidence, and that provides a foundation for long-term success.

  •  82% of students in 826’s signature creative writing programs reported feeling an increase in their confidence in writing.
  • 86% of after-school tutoring students said 826 helped them become a better writer.
  • 94% of parents said their child received better grades in school with the help of 826.
  • 97% of educators who attended 826’s field trips reported that their students learned new things about writing.

This infographic, produced by 826 National & Parallel-Play, is featured in 826 National’s 2015-2016 annual report

Another interesting statistic from their annual report is that 80% of the money they spend goes directly to their programs. (The remaining 20% covers administrative and management costs and fundraising.) That means that most of the money we donate will go directly to the areas that impact kids most, from after-school tutoring to actually publishing student work.

Zdravko Cota, Courtney Costello, and Zack Notes of the UncommonGoods Product Management Team participating in a student field trip at 826NYC

We truly wish that we could share even more of that work, since the stories and poems featured here are just a small sample of the fantastic pieces created by student writers in 826 Network programs. Aside from knowing that Better to Give contributions are helping 826 National make a difference in kids’ lives, and the lives of their families, one of the best things about partnering with the organization is getting to see how they’re inspiring kids firsthand. Though reading the students’ pieces, visiting our local chapter, and volunteering to help out with a few 826NYC field trips, many team members here at UncommonGoods are feeling pretty inspired ourselves.

If you’re interested in getting in on that inspiration—and empowering students to write their own paths forward—you can learn more about volunteering here. To donate directly to 826 National visit 826national.org/donate/.

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