DISCO Helps Kids Catch the Rhythm of Writing

By Kathy Seale

Elizabeth and Laurel
UAB writing instructor Elizabeth Hughey, left, along with a group of volunteers such as UAB alum Lauren Mills, right, is exploring ways to bring creative writing opportunities to Birmingham-area kids.

For the moment, the Woodlawn headquarters of the Desert Island Supply Co. (DISCO) is gutted and, well, deserted. But that will change, probably sooner rather than later. The speed at which things move for the curiously named creative-writing program—co-founded by UAB writing instructor Elizabeth Hughey and her writer husband, Chip Brantley—is impressive.

In January, the couple (along with a core group of about 20 volunteers) began exploring ways to bring more creative-writing opportunities to Birmingham-area kids. “Whether you’re 10 or 50, it’s a barrier if you can’t write,” says volunteer Laurel Mills, who holds a master’s degree in English from UAB. “The sooner we encourage people to get involved with creative writing, the better.”

In less than a year, the organization has acquired a center of operations, a list of 150 volunteers, and money in the bank. But DISCO didn’t wait for a building—or money—to get its creative-writing party started. The group has held off-site writing workshops and drop-in writing booths at schools and events throughout 2010.

Island Essentials

Desert Island’s home is a former pharmacy at a renovated Masonic lodge on First Avenue North known as Woodrow Hall. It’s exactly where the group wants to be, for a number of reasons, Hughey says.

“It’s convenient, the building is beautiful, and there’s a lot of talk about change in Woodlawn. Then there are the two schools, right there,” she says, pointing toward neighboring Cornerstone Schools and Woodlawn High School.

Students participate in a workshop at Woodlawn High School, just a short walk from the DISCO headquarters.
Photo: T. Scott Carlisle

Recently, DISCO raised $30,000 through the fund-raising Web site Kickstarter (see All or Nothing). The group also secured a $10,000 grant from the Kresge Arts in Birmingham program, which it is using to fund a community storytelling project called Woodlawn Stories.

Desert Island Supply was inspired by the writing programs 826 Valencia, in San Francisco (with six satellite programs nationwide), and the Bat Cave in Austin, Texas. 826 Valencia opened in a space zoned for retail, so its founders (which include author Dave Eggers), chose to sell pirate supplies. The Bat Cave followed suit, and plans a spelunking theme.

The storefront at Desert Island will offer such uninhabited isle essentials as maps, parachute-cord bracelets, books, and bottles (for floating messages). Sales will help fund the organization, and the hope is that the window displays will “draw the public in to see what it’s all about,” Hughey says. Then there’s this: Associating the writing program with desert island supplies brings “an element of fantasy.” Because the organization’s acronym brings to mind a certain ’70s-era dance craze, a disco-party-as-fund-raiser could be in its future.

Verbs and Vegetables

DISCO has already staffed writing booths at the McWane Science Center, Woodlawn United Methodist Church, and the West End Community Gardens Summer Solstice Party. The group also has hosted numerous poetry and writing workshops at Woodrow Hall, the Woodlawn Public Library, and Woodlawn High School (where they also worked with Birmingham’s Community Education Department to offer creative-writing workshops at Birmingham City Camp).

DISCO partnered with Jones Valley Urban Farm to offer drop-in writing workshops during the summer. Photo: Arik Sokol

Tina Harris, an English instructor at UAB, volunteered to judge a poetry contest held at Woodlawn High. “Since I direct the Ada Long Creative Writing Workshop for High School Students here at UAB, I was very interested in meeting students with an interest in creative writing,” Hall says. “One of the students that I met that day attended our workshop.”

Desert Island also partnered with Jones Valley Urban Farm this summer to offer drop-in writing workshops at the East Lake Farmers Market and Pepper Place Saturday Market. The farm provided fruits and vegetables, and volunteers used the produce as prompts for poems and stories.

The response to the weekend workshops, Mills says, was particularly gratifying. She was skeptical that children would want to do something they might perceive as school-related on a Saturday. But some of the same kids showed up week after week for another shot at writing a poem or short story about, say, a turnip. “They were so interested and excited,” she says.

This fall, volunteer Joey Kennedy—UAB alumnus, Pulitzer prize-winning editorial writer at The Birmingham News, and adjunct writing instructor at UAB—plans to direct a civics workshop tied to the state gubernatorial election in November. Participants will write letters to the new governor, asking questions and offering suggestions.

“I’m really excited about it,” says Kennedy, who earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees from UAB. “I hope this is just the beginning of my involvement with them.”

Future plans for DISCO include after-school workshops and tutoring at its Woodlawn headquarters, and school outreach beyond Cornerstone Schools and Woodlawn High. “Our goal is to have a steady flow of students from all over Birmingham,” Hughey says.


Dream Weavers

An excerpt from "I Lost My Mind Just Now," a group poem written by Ada Cook, Riley Donlon, Anna Kulczycka, Emma Morrison, Lily Robinson, Sydney Scarpulla, Emmaline Welch, and Carlisle Wilson at a DISCO workshop in spring 2010 (the girls are pictured working with instructor Elizabeth Hughey above; photo courtesy of Chip Brantley).

I’ve lost so many things it’s hard to remember just one.

I lost my rat, Aurora, outside. I never found her.

When I ran after a lizard (chameleon), I got lost and said, “Where am I?”

When I got lost at the McWane Center, I said to my dad, “You should have told me you were going over there!”

I lost my dad’s phone — while texting — after he said, “Do not lose it.”

Once I lost my dad’s wedding ring. I was a baby.

I’ve lost my mind a whole bunch. Sometimes I act like a person who doesn’t know anything. I ask, “What does disappear mean?”

In math, I get lost a lot looking at something new.

I get lost at gym time at school because there are a lot of stations and they go in a weird order.


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