National nonprofit’s programs address the area’s diverse population and youth who speak English as a second language
By Kathryn Ruleman
Editor’s Note: Since this story was written, 826DC’s leadership has changed. Miriam Al-Shawaf is now the Program Director, succeeding Mike Scalise.
826DC opened a tutoring center and museum in Columbia Heights, because the organization saw a need in the culturally diverse community for its programs, particularly for the growing numbers of youth who do not speak English as a first language, said Mike Scalise, programs manager.
826DC is full of energy like DC USA, the shopping complex located across the street. Students, volunteers, staff and museum goers bustle throughout the center. Students share their story ideas with volunteers, while the shopkeeper informs residents of the Museum of Unnatural History. 826DC fits in the Columbia Heights neighborhood, because the organization tries to work with communities that are of higher need, said Joe Callahan, deputy director.
The nonprofit organization, dedicated to supporting students ages 6 through 18 with their creative and expository writing skills, as well as provides drop-in tutoring, after-school workshops and in-school tutoring.
The neighborhood “has a large Hispanic community and Latino population, so it was kind of a right fit for us,” he said.
Scalise said the center has many students who attend bilingual schools. Students come from Oyster-Adams Bilingual School, E.L. Haynes Public Charter School, Capital City Public Charter School and Sacred Heart School.
Although African-Americans account for majority of the population of Columbia Heights, the neighborhood is known for its growing Latino presence. Statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau show that African-Americans make up almost 60 percent of the neighborhood’s population, while Hispanics account for almost 35 percent. And almost 35 percent of the population is foreign-born.
“It was always Columbia Heights for us,” Scalise said. “There are so many schools – middle schools, high schools, charter schools, public schools – in the immediate area that it just seemed a natural fit.”
Andrew Wiseman, who runs the the New Columbia Heights blog that provides local community news and information about the neighborhood, said 826DC has provided a needed service.
“There are many people in the neighborhood for whom English isn’t their first language, so I think this is definitely useful,” Wiseman said in an e-mail interview.
Callahan said the neighborhood is “very different” from what it was 10 years ago, and in 10 years it will be “totally different.”
The 1999 opening of the Columbia Heights Metro station prompted the return of economic development and residents, who vacated the neighborhood after the 1968 riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
More than 10 years since the Metro station opened, the access to public transportation still attracts new businesses, organizations and residents to the neighborhood.The proximity to the Metro station and Metrobus stops is one reason that 826DC chose the Columbia Heights neighborhood, Callahan said.
Scalise said many of the organization’s volunteers have professional experience in the arts and editorial work, and they’re looking for a way to contribute.
“This is sort of a nice central area for that,” he said.
Wiseman said a lot of young, well-educated people have moved into the area.
“I think the excitement about 826DC reflects that,” he said.
Wiseman said these residents are interested in the center because of its connection with Dave Eggers, author and co-founder of the organization, as well as the “quirky, clever aspect” of the Museum of Unnatural History, the storefront of 826DC.
“I hope it says that newer residents are interested in volunteering to help local kids,” he said.
The after-school tutoring sessions, in which students receive free one-on-one tutoring in all subject areas, run Monday through Thursday afternoons at the center, on 3233 14th St. N.W.
“Our idea with the after-school tutoring program is that we wanted to provide a safe place for the students to learn in whatever subject they wanted to,” Scalise said. “But we also wanted to provide a reliable place for parents who maybe have schedules that don’t match up well with their kids’ school schedules.”
He said the program has worked out well, allowing many parents to drop their children off at the center while they go home to cook dinner. The students can do something productive with that time between school and dinner, he said.
Callahan said, “When they leave here, they have their homework done, and they can be focused on spending time with their family. … That’s what we do. That’s our goal.”
The Museum of Unnatural History
The Museum of Unnatural History is the storefront of 826DC. The museum displays quirky items – playful parodies of typical museum exhibits – designed by volunteers and staffers. Most of the items showcased are for sale.
Some of the unique items on the shelves include: primordial soup, sabertooth dental floss, “missing links” in a jar and a roll of toilet paper labeled “Field Journal.” The store also sells T-shirts and posters.
“I love the ‘owlephant,’ ” Fixler said. “Because he’s hysterical and great.” The “owlephant” is a snowy owl with an elephant trunk.
“It’s really fun when people, especially adults, come in, and they’re really skeptical,” said Josh Fixler, shop volunteer. “And then it starts to dawn on them that it’s a joke, and then it dawns on them what we’re actually doing here.”
All proceeds from the store are used to support the organization’s writing programs.
“The excitement that they get from that realization is really great,” he said.
Fixler said he first discovered the organization through 826NYC in Brooklyn, N.Y. He said he got excited about it, bought a poster and said, “If you guys ever come to D.C., then I’m totally going to volunteer there.” Keeping his promise, Fixler volunteers in the shop.
826 National was co-founded by Eggers and educator Ninive Calegari. 826DC is one of eight affiliates, which are shaped around Calegari’s experiences as a teacher.
The other chapters are located in culturally diverse neighborhoods across the country, such as Valencia, in the heart of San Francisco, Calif., the West Town community in Chicago, the Greenwood neighborhood in Seattle, Roxbury’s Egleston Square in Boston, Ann Arbor, Mich., Brooklyn and Los Angeles.
The first center was founded in 2002 in the Mission District of San Francisco. 826 Valencia was named by its street location — 826 Valencia Street.
“It starts very small,” Callahan said, “but then it grows bigger to developing a generation of readers and writers.”