The first time I met Dave Eggers, best-selling author and founder of the eclectic and hilarious lit journal McSweeny's, was at a book festival a few years ago. Chatting for a few moments before he went onstage to read, Eggers appeared nice but uneasy, someone for whom socializing was a chore. Then he walked onstage and, within minutes, I felt obliged to revise my opinion. Charismatic and charged, Eggers extolled the value of literary programs (the book festival was associated with one) and shared anecdotes about his own nonprofit. Just as I had him pinned as the reserved, serious type who came alive only when speaking on meaningful issues, Eggers launched into a series of letters to CEOs written by a dog named Steven -- and I laughed so hard I nearly wet my pants.
In the span of an hour, Eggers went from nervous introvert to impassioned advocate to stand-up comic, and that wasn't even the extent of it. Following the reading, he turned superhero and did something no author in the book festival history had: When the director handed him his rather sizable check, Eggers discreetly returned it, requesting that the money be donated.to the local literacy foundation.
But the fact that Dave Eggers is a shape shifter — and a benevolent one at that — isn't particularly surprising when you consider 826, the kaleidoscopic nonprofit tutoring organization he's created. It's playful, rigorous, serious, funny, daring and generous — and, like Eggers himself, virtually impossible to define.
The program's flagship 826 Valencia (named for the address of the San Francisco location), began as a sign outside the McSweeney's office that read, "Free Tutoring." Today it's a national organization with centers in six cities, including the Venice location in Los Angeles, which celebrates its one-year anniversary this month. Volunteers teach creative and expository writing to students ages six to 18 and offer free drop-in tutoring, field trips, workshops, in-school support English as a second language (ESL) concentration and student publications.
"Because the centers focus on writing and pub- lishing and all kinds of workshops," says Eggers, "all the students are there to work at their own levels, and the place has the hum of many-leveled activity, There will be middle-schoolers in there getting extra help on homework, and next to them, a high school student working on his novella, and next to him, some grade schoolers working on a scrapbook. And they'll all be getting one-on-one attention."
The focus of 826, besides inspiring kids to write, is to support students and teachers who ma of limited resources in our public systems. In Los Angeles Unified School (LAUSD), which serves 900,000 students, that's no minor task, but 826LA is committed to picking some of the slack. In-school programs pair tutors with underserved schools from Venice to Inglewood to North Hollywood.
The individualized attention 826 gives may well be the reason for students' improved grades and SAT scores, but it's undoubtedly the program's whimsical approach that attracts many of the kids. Take, for instance, the workshops with names like "Writing for Your Pet" and "Create Your Own Comics." When 826LA opened its doors a year ago, Spike Jonze taught a skateboard video production class, and last month's sports-writing camp included visits to Lakers games, with students sitting in press boxes interviewing players.
An unusual setting also contributes to the spirit of 826. "Most of the 826 locations elsewhere in the country," says Eggers, "are attached to storefronts that sell strange things—pirate supplies, crime-fighting gear, space travel stuff. But 826LA is in a building with a richer history — it was once a police station and jail, and now houses SPARC, a nonprofit arts space that keeps the history and practice of Chicano mural arts alive."
But the hallmark of 826LA is its student-produced publication. From concept to layout, students learn the professional process of creating a book. Last year Animo Inglewood High School students collaborated with former Lakers coach Phil Jackson to publish The Rhythm of the Chain, a book about teamwork. This month. 826LA and Roosevelt High kfaool students celebrate the release of "reflections on growing up Latino in LA, the challenges of fight- rse stereotypes, stories of redemp- tm from drugs and gangs, as well as teams for a new LA," with an introduction penned by Roosevelt High dam Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
"In the book," says Mayor Marajgosa, "you hear the dreams, thoughts and frustrations of a dedicated group of students striving to achieve their best. It is our responsibility to listen to these children and work towards fulfilling their dreams." Eggers and the 826 volunteers have not only accepted this responsibility, they've embraced it - and by doing so have proven that belief in one vision can allow a multitude more to emerge.
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