ScholarMatch, a new shop on Valencia street is author Dave Egger's latest initiative to help studenst finance college.

Portraits of Dorrian Lewis, Larin Belberska, Mikias Wondyfraw hang in the otherwise empty storefront on 849 Valencia Street. This is no temporary art exhibit. These are the proud faces of last year’s high school graduates who received college funding from ScholarMatch.org, author Dave Eggers’ latest community initiative.

ScholarMatch, which opened its storefront Jan. 15 but has been operating since April of 2010, grew out of 826 Valencia’s yearly scholarship program.  It’s a website that connects donors with students from the Bay Area who need help paying for college.

Francisco Figueroa uploaded his profile on ScholarMatch hoping to study graphic design.

Eggers started it last spring, after realizing his scholarship program could help only a handful of students. “Every year, 826 Valencia would give five scholarships, but the other 100 applicants would go wanting,” he explained in a press release. Tapping into the community, he hoped to help more students go to college.

On the surface, ScholarMatch looks nothing like 826 Valencia, located across the street. In the freshly painted storefront, bookcases filled with grownup-looking SAT and college books line the walls. But despite the outward differences with the pirate store, ScholarMatch holds true to 826’s core belief that learning happens through one-on-one attention, said Miel Alegre, ScholarMatch’s director of operations. Something she hopes their new space, open to students who can drop by for assistance and workshops, will only add to.

In the early stages, though, Eggers envisioned ScholarMatch to be mostly an online tool where hundreds of students would upload their profiles and educational goals, and money would pour in from the community, Alegre said. But they realized very quickly that for ScholarMatch to be effective, the concept had to be fine-tuned to include personal coaching.

During the first college application workshop, Alegre was bombarded with questions: How do I write my personal essay, where do I apply to go school? What is a personal quote? “It was a moment where we realized that each student has unique needs and very different questions. No online tool could replace that.”

ScholarMatch is closely involved with each student who uploads a profile. Before students can publish their profile online, they are vetted for college acceptance and financial need. ScholarMatch also works closely with the donors, who can earmark funds for a student or allow ScholarMatch to find the right match. All donations go directly to college tuition instead of into a student’s personal bank account. Once enrolled, the students use e-mails and blogs to update their donors about their experiences at school.

The average scholarship goal is $5,000, and the majority are reached through multiple donations. “The last few thousand dollars are often the hardest to scrape together for students; that is where ScholarMatch can come in and help fill the gap,” Alegre said. She spoke from experience.

Alegre had to delay her own college plans because she failed to come up with the last $2,000 dollars she needed for tuition to go to SUNY-Binghamton. Thanks to a scholarship, she was able to attend New School University four years on.

Over the last nine months, 18 students were funded through ScholarMatch, while 57 received some of the money needed to reach their goal.

“I cannot wait to have enough ScholarMatch recipients to put in a monthly rotating display,” Miel Alegre of ScholarMatch says, standing in the storefront with a portrait of Dorrian Lewis, who reached her $3,800 goal last May.

One of the students is Dorrian Lewis, currently studying music at City College of San Francisco. Already an 826 alumni, Lewis was excited when she heard Eggers announce the new program. She uploaded her profile and her financial needs, as well as a personal quote. “My passion for music is so strong that nothing, not even cancer, can keep me from it,”  she told potential donors, referring to her bout with T-cell lymphoma cancer, diagnosed in 2005 but in remission since 2007.

A few weeks later, as Lewis was waiting for the bus to go home, Alegre called to say that she had been fully funded at $3,800. She remembers being flabbergasted. “Music has always been my passion. I had recently overcome cancer, and now I could go on and better myself and get higher education.”

ScholarMatch is open from noon to 5 p.m. on weekdays and by appointment.

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