“There is one thing that has made this work: we knew from a very early stage that there were lots of things we didn’t know,” says Cath Keenan, co-founder of the Sydney Story Factory. “So we brought in people who filled the gaps. An education expert. A treasurer. Then everything became possible.”
‘Everything’ now includes vials of fungi in congealed goop, t-shirts in tin cans, and fan zines. All these oddities are housed inside the Sydney Story Factory’s ‘Martian Embassy’, a non-profit creative writing centre and shop in Redfern that provides hands-on workshops for children. Each week, hundreds of kids hunch over tables scribbling stories with their volunteer tutors. All this action is hidden behind a storefront spruiking “The Finest Produce from the Blue Planet.” It’s hard not to get inspired.
It started in 2010 with a TED Talk. Keenan, an arts writer and former literary editor at the Sydney Morning Herald, and her Fairfax colleague Tim Dick, heard American author Dave Eggers speak about 826 Valencia – a writing and homework help centre he set up in San Francisco for disadvantaged kids. Housed inside a ‘Pirate Supply Store’ to get around zoning laws, it was an offbeat, exciting space that connected some of America’s best writers with kids who needed help.
Like most people who come across the centre, Keenan and Dick thought it a great idea and wondered if it might work in their hometown. Unlike most people, they started searching for similar programs around Redfern – near where they both lived – and asking local educators for advice. Then they got on a plane to America.
“I remember feeling very fraudulent at that stage,” Keenan admits.
“The hard part of any new project happens early on, where you’ve got a rough idea and you’re starting to tell people about it, but you’re just another one of 600 people who’ve said a similar thing.” Keenan and Dick landed in San Francisco and went straight to volunteer at 826 Valencia, learning as much as they could about the model.
Back in Sydney, around that same time, they held their first volunteer meeting. “It was at a local pub and 200 people turned up,” Keenan remembers. “That’s when we first had the sense of ‘wow, this might work’. When you’ve got other people who believe in your idea, it starts to feel like the real thing.”
It took over a year for the Sydney Story Factory to take shape. The model is different to 826 Valencia, as it focuses on creative writing, not homework help. “When we spoke to teachers they reported that there was less and less space in the curriculum for creativity,” Keenan explains, “and this is really an area where kids could do with some freedom to explore things.”
The 18 months before opening were filled with board meetings, fundraising and trying to get something done for nothing. Keenan and Dick were at the coalface. “The board came and helped with certain parts,” Keenan remembers, “but, at first, we virtually did it all.” They wrote business plans. They ran meetings. They won grants, but money was especially tight. Still somehow, like a goodwill tag team, one kind deed connected with the next.
“The architects literally spent 2000 hours of time creating the Embassy,” Keenan reports, gesturing towards a giant piece of joinery, which makes visitors feel like they’re inside a plywood alien. “We had to get everything for free, which was hard, but there was this great collaborative feeling,” she adds.
It’s an attitude that still permeates the project two years on, from the board to the 900-something volunteers who have taken the training program.
Growing up, Keenan was “one of those kids with their head in a book”. Reading helped her figure out what she was thinking, and writing was her way of understanding it. This is at the heart of the Sydney Story Factory’s appeal, and its success. An average week sees between 100 and 150 kids visit the space; school groups bus in from Western Sydney and local kids attend workshops where they’re hosted by Storyteller-in- Chief Richard Short and Deputy Storytellers Matt Roden and Helen Coolican. Kids craft short stories, scripts and graphic novels, and they always get something tangible to take home. “We try to make it look beautiful,” Keenan says. “We bind it and put their photo on the back. We want them to think of it as a published thing.”
Keeping the organisation ticking over is a “constant struggle”, Keenan admits. And fundraising can be hard. “It’s a challenge to keep doing what we do, while adding in aspects that attract new people and funding.”
The Sydney Story Factory has seven staff members and all, except one, are part time. A lot of the kids, however, are regulars. “Some have been coming before we officially started, when we were running pilot programs,” Keenan says. “Seeing the kids change and grow up is incredible. And few things are more fun than sitting with a child and writing."