My Time as a Volunteer in the Back of the Pirate Supply Store by
(79 Stories)

Prompted By Volunteering

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As the story goes, the property on Valencia Street was zoned for retail. But the new tenants wanted to open a tutoring center. Naturally, the solution was to start stocking up on pirate stuff.

The Pirate Supply Store at 826 Valencia is really a front for a place where kids in San Francisco can get help with writing and homework. In 2002, when I was working as a college advisor in a Bay Area high school, I read an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about this brand new tutoring center in San Francisco’s Mission District. It sounded like something I might like, so I called and went in for an interview.

From the website:  “826 Valencia was founded in 2002 by educator Nínive Calegari and author Dave Eggers. The idea was simple: they wanted to support overburdened teachers and connect caring adults with neighborhood students who needed a little help with their writing.”

My experience with rising seniors and their struggles with personal statements seemed tailor-made for 826 Valencia’s needs and I became part of the first group of volunteer tutors to sneak past the eye patches, hook protectors (corks), drawers full of X’s (to mark the spot on treasure maps), and a large barrel full of lard, among other things, to the back area where tables and chairs were set up for students.

It was exciting to be part of this new adventure, and I met the most amazing, dedicated people who ran the place. I went to high schools on field trips to help kids get started with writing their essays. And classes of kids came from across the Bay to 826 on field trips to get help with their writing. For most kids, this meant taking BART to the Mission and walking through the eclectic neighborhood to the pirate supply store/tutoring center. A few years into my tutoring stint, 826 began offering a Personal Statement Weekend at Mission High School. Students from all over the city came with drafts of their essays and were paired off with volunteer tutors who had attended a training session, often led by me. I loved working one-on-one with the kids on those weekends. They all came with such interesting stories, even though they may not have thought they were interesting at all.

On one occasion, we were visited by a group of middle school kids who were writing essays about a book they had read. One of “my” kids sat slouched in his chair, chin in his hand, eyes half-closed–not exactly the picture of readiness for a stimulating discussion of his work. He had chosen to write about All Quiet on the Western Front, a story about young men not much older than he, fighting in World War I. I read his first paragraph and stopped in my tracks when I got to this sentence: “They made lifelong friendships that didn’t last very long.” I looked him in the eye and said, “This is one of the best sentences I have ever read. Really.” He sat up then and smiled. It was a moment for both of us.

Another great aha moment: working with a kid who did a compare and contrast essay about his life and The Simpsons. You just never know what kids will come up with when they get some encouragement. This kid ran with it, and produced a unique essay about life in the inner city set against the crazy TV world of the Simpsons.

The good folks at 826 Valencia produced many books of student work. Jory John, one of the talented staff members who has since become a best-selling children’s book author, pulled together letters to then President Obama to create a book of helpful advice from kids. Obama was spotted carrying a copy of it!

826 Valencia (which now has nine official chapters nationally, all called 826) also published a book called Don’t Forget to Write: 54 Enthralling and Effective Lessons for Students 6-18. Jenny Traig, writer and editor, asked me to contribute a chapter for the high school section. So, there I am, on the same page with some kick ass writers. I was thrilled to be asked and so excited to be a part of this work.

My years with 826 Valencia finally came to an end after over 10 years and 100 plus hours of volunteering, and a collection of cool 826 swag. I tapered off, only going to the personal statement weekends until my fall travel schedule started to interfere.


I have to say that working alongside other dedicated volunteers and carrying out the mission of the amazing duo of Dave Eggers and Ninive Calegari was one of the best things I’ve ever done.



Characterizations: funny, right on!, well written


  1. Suzy says:

    Risa, that sounds like a great volunteer job, where you made a difference in the lives of a lot of kids! I love that the creators of 826 Valencia had to use a pirate supply store as a front for the tutoring center. You would expect it to be the other way around. And how perfect that you were asked to write a chapter in their book. I’m sure you gave excellent advice about college application essays. That tantalizing peek at the Table of Contents makes me want to read the entire book! Thanks for sharing this with us!

  2. Marian says:

    This is wonderful, Risa, and it’s funny that these dedicated volunteers had to “front” their efforts with a pirate store. How San Francisco. And how great of you to do this work. It is amazing to see the lights go in someone’s eyes when they make progress in their writing.

  3. This essay really appealed to me–at first in part because I’m pretty sure the existence of 826 made national news and was featured either in an NPR story or on “this American Life” or some other podcast. So I wanted to know more. But the narrative was so well constructed and full of well-selected details (e.g., the barrel of X’s “to mark the spot!”) that it soon did not matter whether or not I had ever heard of this wonderful place.
    The greatest pleasure came from hearing concrete examples of what the kids produced; in particular, the sentence you quoted from the student writing about the war novel.
    Congratulations on being part of this book you reference! You have clearly earned your spurs–or should I say, your eye patch and cutlass!

    • Risa Nye says:

      Arrr! Thanks, Dale. I loved peeking in all the drawers at the pirate store. The barrel of lard was impressive. Another cool thing: the person behind the desk could push a button that would cause a net of ropes to drop down on an unsuspecting customer. Hilarity ensued, as you can imagine.

  4. Betsy Pfau says:

    What wonderful work, Risa! How fun to be in a pirate store, while working creatively with those great kids! I heard about some of the great work that Dave Eggers did (even here on the east coast). It must have been so fulfilling to be a part of that.

  5. Brava Risa for your important work tutoring kids. And wow, Dave Eggers is a writer and editor I greatly admire, have read many of his books, did you meet him?

  6. John Shutkin says:

    What a great organization 826 is! And, as others noted, it is hilarious that it used the “hook” of a pirate theme to get kids in the door (Captain Hook?). I can only imagine how terrific it must have been to be part of 826.

    And I particularly agree with your writing critique. “They made lifelong friendships that didn’t last very long” is about the best sentence I’ve read, too. (It also reminds me of a law colleague of mine who was told by his local Blockbuster store that his “lifetime membership” had expired.)

    • Risa Nye says:

      Thanks, John! This reminds me to check the status of my lifetime alumni membership from Cal! Re the hook: good one! And,yes–it was terrific to be there at the beginning. So many of the people that came through 826 went on to do terrific things.Right time, right place…made all the difference.

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