Q: The Greater Boston Bigfoot Research Institute is…
A: A whimsically named study group at MIT that likes to discuss quantum physics and trade grainy photos of Bigfoot wandering through the Commons at night.
B: A darkened room in the basement of the Boston Public Library where Bigfoot aficionados meet in secret to huddle around a table and trade tips for tracking down the legendary beast.
C: A figment of my imagination.
D: The storefront for 826 Boston, where you can do some one-stop-shopping for all of your cryptozoology needs.
Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is not C, but D. The 826s are a collection of nonprofits that started when author Dave Eggers and teacher Ninive Calegari began a writing and tutoring center for 6- to 18-year-olds in San Francisco about 10 years ago. Because the location they chose for their center happened to be zoned for retail use, they opened a pirate supply store in the front, and thus was born a tradition of writing, tutoring, and selling random things, all in one space.
Boston is one of the few cities lucky enough to have its own 826. It’s located downtown in Roxbury with an enticing glassy storefront that houses the aforementioned GBBRI. In the front, you can buy Bigfoot-themed items as well as various publications of student writing, and in the back, they tutor, conduct writing workshops, edit those publications of kids’ writings, and generally run an awesome nonprofit dedicated to fostering learning and creativity in the literary arts for as many kids as they can fit into their programs.
I found out about 826 Boston when it opened in 2007, and immediately I was intrigued. Not only had it been created by one of modern literary fiction’s brightest stars, but it also was the first organization of its kind that I had ever heard of. I’d been thinking about volunteering to do something (fill in the blank here) for a long time, but I could never figure out what that something should be, and I always had an even harder time determining how I could fit volunteering into my schedule. Given how busy I generally am and how much downtime I need to keep from freaking out, I knew that if I didn’t pick an organization that really fit me, I wouldn’t follow through on it.
Fast forward several years, and now that I live even farther away from Roxbury and have an even more complicated schedule, I somehow came to the conclusion that this was my moment. It was volunteer do-or-die. So despite having just a couple of months left before Kid B arrives and my time gets even more limited, I attended my first volunteer’s orientation meeting last month. I felt like the oldest person in the room by far, partly due to being a person-and-a-half and partly due to the fact that everyone else at my table was talking about having just completed a year or two off between college and grad school; but what can you do? Everyone was friendly, and I got over feeling old just in time to be asked if this was my first baby and to respond, “No, my second.”
All of that aside, the 826 folks are wonderfully accommodating to their volunteers, first because they have a lot of different options and opportunities to get involved, and second because they recognize that you may be busy enough that you can only commit to them a few times a month or even a year. They offer tutoring, in-school projects, field trips and writing workshops of various kinds, a Publishing Corps (more on that in a moment), fundraising and events planning, and also, of course, the GBBRI, where you can volunteer to perform a number of store- or Bigfoot-related duties. (I think this would be particularly amazing if only so you can put the word “Bigfoot” on your resume once or twice.)
For me, the Publishing Corps stood out immediately because of my work history, and having participated in one meeting and a bit of work done remotely on the current publishing project, I have to say, it’s just as much fun as I thought it would be. Basically, this group of volunteers edits, proofreads, and designs the students’ stories to produce the books that 826 Boston publishes and sells. The stories themselves are great, an interesting window into all of these different young minds, and very creative but also shot through with humor (sometimes accidentally) and references to pop culture that it make it clear that these are kids still discovering the world. I felt good about the fact that I was contributing something to their reading and writing development, however small my role was. Now the challenge will be keeping up with volunteering in the future, after a brief hiatus, but I’m feeling more confident about it than before. Sometimes the hardest thing is just taking the first step.