The Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co. is a serious business. Sandwiched between a florist and a farm-to-table restaurant, the unassuming Park Slope retailer is a one-stop shop for all your crime-fighting needs. You can find lamé capes, sonic blasters, and half-gallon jugs of invisibility. For the unbeatable price of $16.50, you can even take home an Evil Blob Containment Unit. But behind this gadget emporium, past the sliding bookcase, is where the real magic happens.
The secret lair of the Superhero Supply is 826NYC, a nonprofit writing lab and tutoring center for youth ages 6 to 18. Like its sister chapters across the country, it offers after-school homework help, creative writing workshops, and interactive field trips — all free of charge.
“The goal is to engage students,” says Joan Kim ’00, education director and co-founder of 826NYC. After graduating with a degree in English and a certificate in teacher prep, she worked at a small publishing house in Manhattan. A friend invited her to an 826 event, and the experience inspired Kim to join the organization fulltime. As education director, Kim has a variety of responsibilities that include teaching workshops, writing grants, planning fundraisers, and meeting with community partners. “No two days are the same,” she says. “You’re constantly on the move.”
There are eight chapters of 826 National, the brainchild of McSweeney’s editor Dave Eggers, and each offers hands-on workshops in a wide range of topics, including cartooning, journalism, and filmmaking. The chapters also operate their own storefronts, each with a unique theme; Valencia, in San Francisco, runs a pirate store, while Chicago’s sells spy equipment. The store serves as a “gateway” to the organization, attracting students, funders, and volunteers.
The programs at 826NYC run on a diverse corps of 1,800 volunteers. “We have students, teachers, actors, writers, lawyers — anyone who has time to give,” she says. “In general, communities are super supportive.”
The proof is in 826NYC’s enrollment. Workshops and field trips frequently fill up and generate wait lists. It’s easy to see why they’re so popular. They engage the imagination in a way that may not be possible in the classroom. “The workshops are project-based,” Kim explains. “Kids get to have fun, learn something, and walk home with the physical object.”
In one of 826’s signature workshops, Story Factory, elementary school students are roped into producing a book for the nefarious publisher “H. Mildew.” At the end of the workshop, each child receives a printed and bound copy of their work. “They get to see that their work is comparable to what they see in the store.”
For some students, the 826 experience has made all the difference. “We get reluctant writers, aspiring authors — and reluctant writers who become aspiring authors,” says Kim. Student work is published in 826’s magazines, anthologies, and a literary journal. Kim is also proud to announce that one 826 alumna recently sold her first novel. “All of us [at 826] have had exposure to the arts,” she says, “and we want to show that it’s worthwhile.”
Vicky Gan ’13 is a history major from Baltimore, Md.