“What do we wish we could have had when we were children?” was the question Mountain Brook natives Chip Brantley and Elizabeth Hughey asked, and then they set out to answer this enquiry in both word and deed, with their lives and with their hearts. This married couple listened to what the community needed and wanted and then they set out to craft a creative writing oasis called Desert Island Supply Co. in the Woodlawn neighborhood of Birmingham, an area desperately in need of a place where “students develop the creative tools they need to explore and document their worlds.”
Chip and Elizabeth graduated from Mountain Brook High School and left Alabama for college, then each forged on to graduate school—Chip to Johns Hopkins for creative non-fiction and Elizabeth to University of Massachusetts for poetry. They married, and after their first child was born they decided to return home to Birmingham, to family and friends, to jobs and community. (Chip teaches journalism at the University of Alabama and has a forthcoming podcast with NPR). It was then that they asked that fateful question that gives us Desert Island Supply Co. (lovingly called DISCO)—a “nonprofit creative writing program for students in Birmingham, Alabama.”
Elizabeth and Chip were also inspired by David Eggers and 826 Valencia, a non-profit in San Francisco that supports under-resourced students, teaching creative writing skills under a pirate flag and theme. It was the first model for such a center. Eggers realized kids need more opportunity to write and he gathered a “collective of writers” to get it off the ground. Chip and Elizabeth watched his powerful results and did the same but with their own twist. They gathered friends, teachers and writers of all stripes in Birmingham. And asked, “If this could be? What would it be? And how?”
To walk into Desert Island Supply Co. on First Avenue North in Woodlawn is to walk into a space where creativity is as explored as the maps, photos and pictures on the walls. But it wasn’t always this way. When Elizabeth and Chip first arrived, they found a room full of boxes and storage bins, dusty and in need of some tender loving (and creative) care. It had been donated to them if they cleaned it out. They were just the couple up for the job. With a Kickstarter that raised thirty thousand dollars they were off and running. A “Desert Island” became their touchstone and motto— “the blank page is a desert island and we offer the tools and ‘supplies’ to get that child off the island.” And there it was conceived— Desert Island Supply Co.
In Woodlawn for six years now, the non-profit thrives in a restored Woodlawn building called Woodrow Hall and also in classrooms of three elementary and middle schools. The first of two initiatives is to serve the students of Woodlawn. DISCO provides weekly creative writing workshops to over seven hundred students. With both in-school programs and after-school workshops, DISCO believes, as all who know the power of story believe, stories are meant to be shared. DISCO offers the space for this communal gathering with readings, workshops and poetry recitations, as well as a yearly publication where students’ work is printed and shared. Pale Summer was published in May.
In their teaching, DISCO and their volunteers work with the schools to ensure they touch on the CORE aligned principles of all disciplines. The in-school program is thriving, always changing and becoming something new with the needs of the community. Every year DISCO has added a grade or school with the worthy goal of serving every Woodlawn student in second through 12th grade.
The second initiative is to build community in Birmingham, to have the space become a hub for creative endeavors. To that end they have hosted hundreds of creative community events; writing workshops, readings, art shows, performances, lectures, screenings, community meetings and concerts—often free or for just a nominal fee.
There is also a store where the stranded soul on a desert island might find the essential tools they need to write, document, create and dream. All proceeds from the store support the school programs.
There are challenges of course. Any good story must overcome challenges. DISCO needs volunteers and community support. If you are a book lover or writer, if you are using words at all in your profession, they need you to come and volunteer to teach students to use words to change their own worlds (See sidebar).
Every year DISCO holds a Read-A-Thon to raise money for the center. Students whose faces glow with the ability to not only creatively express their world but to be able to share that expression. To find a place where they discover like minds, meet friends who care about the same things as they do, and to forge friendships based on creative work, is a wonder for these students. It is a true oasis. As Elizabeth says, poetry is often the gateway for these kids as they learn to creatively alchemize their world and their feelings. Then more writing and more learning can occur.
Everything that happens at DISCO is driven by the community’s needs. It is fully supported by volunteers, donations, grants and fundraising.
We all might come up with a different answer to “What do we wish we would have had when we were children?” But do we all answer it and then act? Chip and Elizabeth have done just that, and our community is richer and deeper because of their answer—Desert Island Supply Co.