As a sophomore in high school, Feeney heard about 826, a non-profit organization started by Dave Eggers with the aim of providing free after-school writing programs and seminars to high school students. Feeney’s emerging interest in creative writing led him to volunteer before the opening of 826 Valencia, the program’s first writing center, in Feeney’s hometown of San Francisco. He had no experience with tutoring, so the program administrators assigned him odd jobs such as filling giant buckets with lard to help prepare the “pirate supply store” in the center’s lobby, a fully-functioning storefront that sells everything from glass eyes to message bottles.
In addition to his volunteer work, Feeney became one of the first students to enroll in 826 Valencia’s after-school programs. He remembers an early workshop that Eggers taught on magazine publishing. “I believe I was the only student in attendance, besides an older man who sort of wandered in off the street,” Feeney writes in an e-mail.
Eggers was far more than simply a figurehead for the program; he was deeply involved in the center’s daily tutoring sessions and workshops. “It was extremely meaningful to have a talented author like Dave Eggers take my work seriously. I think I became a much more adventuresome writer because of Dave.”
Soon, though, interest in the center began to grow. “What really struck me was how fast the space came to life...Over the course of the next two years, I witnessed 826 Valencia become a veritable institution, as well as host to a really lively community of writers, students, and teachers.”
Feeney dove headfirst into the program, attending as many workshops as he could while tutoring English as a second language and serving on the student editorial board of Houghton-Mifflin’s Best American Nonrequired Reading List. After high school, Feeney nervously anticipated leaving the program that had become such an important part of his life. “I guess you could say I wasn’t ready to leave when I took off for school.”
But the success of 826 Valencia had led the organization to plan a half-dozen new writing centers across the United States, and Feeney saw an opportunity to stay involved in the program by opening up a local chapter. After talking to Eggers, Feeney spent almost a year drafting the local chapter application. He received approval from 826 National, and 826 Boston was born.
In spring of last year, 826 Boston began holding workshops at English High School, expanding to a new location in Egleston Square in the fall. Student interest in the program has been strong, and 826 Boston opened the Greater Boston Bigfoot Research Institute, a tongue-in-cheek storefront for the writing center along the lines of 826 Valencia’s pirate supply store.
Feeney has seen firsthand the formative effects of programs such as 826, and he attributes this to the organization’s lighthearted approach to literature. “When your writing space doubles as a Bigfoot research institute, you inevitably invite students to think a little creatively. I believe that sort of whimsy is a helpful vehicle for our students’ self expression.”
— Mark A. VanMiddlesworth