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Earlier this month, in an article on Sappi’s Standard No. 5 event in NYC I promised you more about 826 National, a phenomenal non-profit organization providing students aged 6-18 with after-school tutoring, field trips, in-school projects and other programs centered around writing, creativity, and from a student perspective most important—fun.

When I learned of 826 National I was impressed not only by their mission but by the clear role graphic design plays in the organization, most visibly in their “whimsical, wackily themed” store fronts for each chapter which include 826 Boston Bigfoot Research Institute, 826 Chicago The Boring Store (for secret agents), 826DC Museum of Unnatural History, 826LA Echo Park Time Travel Mart, 826 Michigan’s Liberty Street Robot Supply & Repair, 826 NYC Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co., 826 Seattle Greenwood Space Travel Supply Company and last but not least 826 Valencia’s Pirate Store. All the stores have a playful, imaginative tone reflected in their individual branding from logos to storefronts and merchandise. The outside of original chapter, 826 Valencia features a mural by well-known graphic novelist Chris Ware author of Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth

Last year they served nearly 30,000 students. Director of Development & Marketing, Jen Benka spoke with me about how 826 National began, some of what they’ve has accomplished and the role design has played in the organization on what coincidentally happened to be the day of their 10th anniversary.

Q. Can you give me some background on 826 National, how it began and important milestones?

Jen Benka: The biggest milestone is that the organization is turning 10 years old, today in fact. [Author] Dave Eggers founded [826 National] 10 years ago in San Francisco because Dave and many of his friends who were writers, educators and artists, wanted to give back and offer tutoring. They put up a sign in a storefront at 826 Valencia Street in San Francisco’s Mission district. The organization is unique for several reasons. All the writing centers are fronted by retail space that is whimsical and wackily themed. [The themed storefronts accomplish several things,] they engage youth, destigmatizing the idea of getting help with homework, tutoring and arts projects, help recruitment (most of our 6000+ volunteers are walk-ins) and provoke curiosity and conversation as well as provide a revenue stream. Rooted in writing and publishing all our projects end with a physical product [giving students a tangible record of their accomplishment] many kids who have come back to the store and center tell us that they still have their books prominently displayed at home.

Q. Was the design element, the storefronts and merchandise, a conscious decision at the outset?

Jen Benka: Design is definitely in the DNA of the organization. The San Francisco storefront and design was somewhat circumstantial because the space was set up retail space. Dave and his friends decided they would sell “supplies to the working pirate” almost as a joke. The original [founding] group included artists and designers and Dave has roots in comic and graphic book world [so although] incorporating design may not have been formally articulated there was definitely that sense of ‘We’re going to have a different design sensibility, we’re not going to be a typical non profit, retail space, etc.’

Q. Do you have upcoming events scheduled to celebrate 826 National’s 10th Anniversary?

Jen Benka: Yes, August 26th—we’ve made it an unofficial holiday every year celebrate youth literacy. We’re having a kick off event featuring the cast of Portlandia. All the chapters hold events year round. New York city does monthly events.

Q. You mentioned 6000+ volunteers, is there still a need for volunteers? How can readers get involved with 826 National?

Jen Benka: Yes, we can always use volunteers, especially designers. In fact, only one chapter has a design staffer. People interested in getting involved can contact [email protected]

Q. Anything else you would like our readers to know?

Jen Benka
: 826 National is one of the only non-profits focused on helping youth specifically with writing outside of school. We’re growing every year and just want to share with the world.

Q. One last question—where did the name 826 National come from?

Jen Benka: It was the physical address of our first location at 826 Valencia Street.