Can This Scavenger Hunt Find Folks Willing to Teach Kids to Write?

San Francisco–based nonprofit 826 Valencia hopes locating a message in a bottle will inspire people to volunteer at its Tenderloin center.
(Photos: BBDO/826 Valencia)
Aug 21, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Discovering a glass bottle with the words “Help me” written on a piece of paper that’s been tied around the bottle’s neck sounds like a plot device in a mystery novel. But the bottled-up SOS going out across San Francisco this week has nothing to do with murder or mayhem. Instead, creative writing and tutoring nonprofit 826 Valencia hopes folks who find the containers will grab some friends and sign up to volunteer at its new center in the Tenderloin.

The message inside each bottle provides some creative inspiration for doing so: the beginning of a story written by one of the students that 826 Valencia works with. To help San Franciscans scour the city for the bottles, 826 Valencia plans to share clues on its Twitter, Facebook and Instagram feeds using the hashtag #826SOS.

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The organization hopes people who locate one of 30 bottles placed across the city will read the story inside and respond to the SOS—a request to “Save Our Stories”—by following written directions to head to a website where they can type what happens next in the story.

“The website will include information about how to sign up to be a volunteer, make a donation, come in to one of our stores to learn more, or post about it on social media to spread the word about our work,” Molly Parent, the programs and communications manager for 826 Valencia, wrote in an email to TakePart.

The 826 Valencia Tenderloin Center launched in May, 14 years after the organization, which was started in San Francisco by writer and philanthropist Dave Eggers and educator Nínive Calegari, opened its Valencia headquarters.

(Photo: BBDO/826 Valencia)

“Last year we served over 5,000 students with 2,359 hours of programming. This required the time and attention of over 800 volunteers,” Parent wrote. “As we expand to serve more kids—because there are definitely more kids in San Francisco who need our support—we need more caring adults in the community to help make it happen.” The organization hopes to recruit 300 additional active volunteers this year, which is where the SOS messages in a bottle come in.

The new location in the Tenderloin, where about one-third of residents live below the poverty line, enables 826 Valencia to reach an estimated 2,000 additional kids who are “in need of the one-on-one support that we know leads to great leaps in writing skills and confidence,” Parent wrote.

The idea of teaching kids to write in a creative setting—the San Francisco locations are decorated with a quirky pirate theme—is so successful that the organization has expanded into 826 National, a network of chapters in six cities across the United States. The need for people willing to help out isn’t limited to its Tenderloin location. “Every chapter is always seeking new volunteers. This allows us to serve more students and give them the time and one-on-one attention that leads to great leaps in learning,” Parent wrote.

(Photo: BBDO/826 Valencia)