Writing a different course

Joe Callahan came to GW with a desire to join the Foreign Service, possibly go in to politics and eventually earn his J.D.

Now he wears jeans and flip-flops to work everyday.

“It’s always funny when I look back and think I was an international affairs major,” Callahan said.

A 2004 graduate of the Elliott School of International Affairs and former University Writing professor, Callahan is now the executive director of 826DC, a nonprofit dedicated to helping students strengthen their writing skills and encouraging teachers to inspire writing in the classroom.

After graduating from GW, Callahan worked in fundraising and development for The American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University, enabling him to receive a free master’s degree.

“When I thought about it, I said, ‘What would I want to do if I didn’t have to pay for my degree?’ and I’d always been interested in writing so I decided to get my master’s in writing, creative non-fiction,” Callahan said.

While still at Johns Hopkins, Callahan also took another job in fundraising – at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

“It was fun, but as soon as I finished my degree I knew I wanted to get more involved in teaching and writing,” Callahan said.

Callahan left his position at the gallery and began teaching writing at both American University and GW.

A Bostonian and a Red Sox fan, Callahan taught two University Writing courses, one on baseball and one on humor. He also worked with GW’s pre-college program in 2010 as a creative writing instructor.

Callahan began as a volunteer for 826DC in February of 2010, assuming the executive director post in January 2011.

The newly renovated building is lined with books, student writing and artwork. Embracing an 826 center tradition to have a creative storefront, guests walk through the Museum of Unnatural History, which sells unusual treasures including replacement bones, dung beetle bait, a field journal more commonly recognized as toilet paper and a duckery, part duck, part shrubbery.

The center is within a two-mile radius of more than 35 public and charter schools.

“We have a large squad of young kids in the neighborhood, which makes for a lot of fun, in a ‘kids say the darndest things’ kind of way,” Callahan said.

826DC provides after-school tutoring for students from 6 to 18 years old, Monday through Thursday afternoons.

The center also hosts visits with authors and helps D.C. teachers design their “dream curriculum,” as Callahan calls it, asking local instructors what they would like to see happen in their classrooms if their wildest educational dreams could come true.

One instructor from Woodrow Wilson High School wanted to do a six-week novel writing project where students would write 50,000 word novels. She hadn’t been able to oversee it in her classroom, as reading and editing all her students’ work in six weeks would be nearly impossible. 826DC paired her students up with their own volunteers and set the students off on a six-week writing binge.

With only two paid staff members, the center has tripled the amount of students they serve by reaching out to local schools, adding volunteers and hosting field trips. The first year, they counted about 100 students, then increased to 315 students two years ago. Since the center opened they have served nearly 1,200.

Callahan sees volunteers and interns as the lifeblood of the nonprofit and says he is always looking for more.

“The reason you want to volunteer at 826 is because we build a strong volunteer community, regularly have volunteer events. You get to work really one-on-one with students in a way that is tremendously important,” said Callahan.

826DC is part of a larger, national community. The first tutoring center opened in San Francisco and was co-founded by award-winning author Dave Eggers. There are now eight chapters nationwide, that collectively served 24,000 students last year.

Callahan said his passion for impacting the lives of students who didn’t get the same attention or educational opportunities he did is far more rewarding than any of his former career pursuits.

“I wouldn’t change it for anything,” said Callahan.

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