826DC teaches young readers and writers ‘the world is as amazing as you imagine it to be’

November 10, 2013

Brightly lit and slightly sterile, 826DC is not your average tutoring center.

It is a place with a green iguana named Alvarez, a taxidermied coyote and a strange and whimsical skeleton built out of bones from a horse, an ape, a bat and an unidentified ungulate.

It is a place with a cave.

“Every night at 9 p.m., there’s a caveman who comes here,” whispers wide-eyed Wesley Nunez, who is 9-years-old and an unabashed fan of this Columbia Heights nonprofit organization, dedicated to inspiring kids to become better readers, writers and students.

“I like this place,” Wesley says. “They help me get A-pluses.”

The tutoring center is one of eight 826 locations across the country honored this month with the Library of Congress’ first-ever Literacy Award, meant to recognize organizations working to address illiteracy in America.

The eight centers take their name from the street address of the first 826 — 826 Valencia St. — founded by writer Dave Eggers in San Francisco’s Mission District. Each is run out of a storefront featuring products that lean toward the weird, the kind of place that invites children to imagine.

In the District, it is the Museum of Unnatural History, featuring unicorn tears and cans of primordial soup.

“It’s this idea that the world is as amazing as you imagine it to be,” said Joe Callahan, executive director of 826DC.

Like its sister centers in other cities, 826DC serves thousands of children each year through a suite of free programs, including after-school tutoring, bookmaking sessions, and in-school writing, storytelling and publishing workshops.

The organization is especially good at connecting public school teachers with published authors, said Topher Kandik, a teacher at the SEED School, a Southeast D.C. charter school. Last year, his class worked with Kyle Dargan, an African American poet who lives not far from the school and to whom students could relate.

“It’s just so neat to see them, when they talk to him and they realize about his background and they say, ‘This could be me,’ ” Kandik said. “All my students are African American, and for them to see writers that look like them is important.”

Kandik’s class is producing a book with help from 826DC volunteers, who work with students in small groups and one-on-one, shepherding them through draft after draft until their poems and stories are ready to be presented to the world.

“It’s cool to see students grow and be proud of their work, and want it to look great for publication,” Kandik said.

826DC serves more than 2,000 students each year and would like to raise enough money to expand to other outposts across the city, including east of the Anacostia River.

For now, most of the children who come to the center live in or near Columbia Heights. They show up by the dozen each afternoon, filing past the enticements of the Museum of Unnatural History into a larger backroom stocked with books and comfy chairs. On the walls are framed copies of manuscript pages from famous novels, marked up with authors’ scribbling edits.

The room buzzes with pairs of tutors and volunteers, hunched over homework, snacking on granola bars and curled up reading.

“Almost all the people here are my friends,” said Jared Alberto, a third-grader at Tubman Elementary, who sat on the floor reading a book with his tutor, Lauren Sczudlo.

Sczudlo, 30, is a teacher who took a break from the classroom when she fell ill with cancer. She started volunteering at 826DC recently as a way to return to teaching.

“It’s such a cool place,” she said.

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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