What if a nonprofit organization was dedicated to cultivating the imagination?
The Desert Island Supply Co. encourages and enchants local youth. The fancifully named outfit, also known as DISCO, focuses on giving kids in the Birmingham area more opportunities to write.
After two years without a home base, DISCO held a grand opening celebration for its writing center last Saturday in Woodlawn. Even in a neighborhood becoming accustomed to community-oriented nonprofits–YWoodlawn is just one example—the DISCO facility is unique.
The DISCO center is located in the Woodrow Building on First Ave. North. A former pharmacy and Masonic lodge, the space is worthy of intrigue. The exposed brick walls, honeycomb tiled floors and dark wooden shelves accommodate the desert island theme. Posters of world maps, sea creatures, fishing nets, ships, and lost explorers hang from the walls. The eerie eyes of voyagers and squids overlook a collection of writing tables and a reading nook. The bookshelves house travel books, adventure fiction and National Geographic issues. Overhead, a canoe hangs.
The windowed storefront will certainly fascinate passersby, and if the space functions as designed, lull them inside to make purchases, support efforts and simply learn of the mission.
The building was gutted and redesigned by Jane Brock, who helped plan and open Urban Standard. With DISCO, she adorned the space in wonderments.
“It’s an ever-shifting vision,” Brock whispered as a young girl read from J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic The Hobbit during the grand opening read-a-thon. Her legs swung from an orange leather chair, the microphone obscuring her face. Listeners lined the walls and tables, awaiting turns to read. Brock crouched along the back row, pointing out photos of writers on the “lost explorers” wall. “We’re here for creative writing, but we won’t ignore the kids’ other needs,” Brock added. Zora Neale Hurston stared back serenely.
Roving the party was Chip Brantley, who cofounded DISCO with his wife Elizabeth Hughey. Brantley is a senior lecturer in emerging media in the department of journalism at the University of Alabama. He authored The Perfect Fruit: Good Breeding, Bad Seeds, and the Hunt for the Elusive Pluot. He founded Cookthink, a food and cooking website. Hughey teaches writing in the Spencer Honors House at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She has published two collections of poetry, Sunday Houses the Sunday House and Guest Host.
Brantley and Hughey were inspired by creative writing nonprofits like 826 Valencia and the Bat Cave. Together, in addition to founding DISCO, they are parents to a five-year-old son.
At the literary launch party Saturday, Brantley cheerfully greeted guests while popping in and out of rooms, always a hand to shake, a person to thank. He is tall and boyish, though bald, with intense eyes and a kind smile. In his T-shirt and jeans, he looked as if he were on his way to the grocery or a soccer game.
Brantley proudly showed off the stock in the storefront—broadsides featuring students’ poetry, T-shirts, glass bottles (for sea-bound messages), student penned how-to books for desert island survival, and writing guides for those island trapped. For instance, here’s an excerpt from “How Writing Can Keep You Sane on a Desert Island”:
Exercise #4: Make a timeline to illustrate the history of your desert island. Or, make a timeline to illustrate the history of your own life. Or, make a timeline to illustrate the future.
Outside, on the block party-style sidewalk, Hughey chatted with parents of neighborhood students. She is lovely, with morning sun-colored hair, and dressed in the style of those intellectually glamorous. Think business-creative. Green blazer. Cowboy boots.
As she bandaged her son’s scraped palm and sent him hopping off to the idling doughnut truck for emotional balm, Hughey discussed the party.
“This is an all-day affair,” Hughey said, referring to the day’s events: the read-a-thon, live music and storytelling, balloon mapping, a “second-breakfast menu,” writing booth, pin-the-tail-on-Smaug and other crafts and games.
She spoke with ease about her role in the Honors house, her poetry and DISCO, all the while keeping watch over her son, who perched on a slight stoop to consume his doughnut and chocolate milk.
Long before opening the DISCO center, Brantley and Hughey were fulfilling the mission of giving young people opportunities to write. Since 2010, they have been operating writing booths at many local organizations and spaces—Woodlawn High School, Woodlawn Public Library, the McWane Science Center, Pepper Place Market, etc.
Brantley and Hughey, over time, have enlisted the help of a small army of writing enthusiasts. The organization is completely volunteer-operated.
“The space is still being run collectively,” Brantley said. “It will be open for special programs and workshops through the rest of the year. Starting in January, we’ll be open every weekday and on some weekends.”
Many volunteers were busy at the party Saturday. A group of UAB freshman honors students huddled in the facility’s sun-struck foyer, greeting the event’s attendees. The group, comprised only of young women, was slightly older than the targeted age bracket for DISCO’s services. They dressed as you imagine them: decked out in TOMS and slouchy plaids and stripes. Surrounding the front desk, the young women excitedly prepared handouts—packs of lost explorer trading cards—and chatted about service, the arts.
“We love the arts,” Lauren Michal said. “We are in love with the program.”
Michal, along with her peers, learned of DISCO through a class assignment but decided to volunteer as a tutor after connecting with the organization’s mission.
“Some of us are better at writing than others,” classmate MaryRose Cammer added. “Together, though, we’ll make a great tutor.”
Brantley, Hughey and their collection of volunteers have created a place for Birmingham’s youth to come together. To explore their imaginations. To write. With Saturday’s literary kickoff party, those who’ve wondered may now delight in getting lost.