Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD) is not a disease most people are familiar with. I had never heard of it before viewing Darius Goes West. Neither had most of the students and community members who filled Paulin Hall Auditorium recently to watch this amazing documentary.
The film follows the journey of Darius Weems, a fifteen-year-old teenager from Athens, Georgia, and his crew of friends as they travel three weeks across the United States in a recreational vehiclewith no parental supervisionto see such sites as the St. Louis Arch, Lombard Street in San Francisco, the Grand Canyon, Carlsbad Caverns, the Pacific Ocean, and others. Darius is a vibrant young man with a great sense of humor and a talent for rapping. He also suffers from Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.
The major aim of the documentary is to raise awareness about the number one genetic killer of children in the worldDuchenne Muscular Dystrophy. It affects males mainly, is 100 percent fatal, and is characterized by rapid muscle degeneration throughout the body. Most sufferers are confined to a wheelchair by the age of twelve. Death usually occurs by the late teens or early twenties, and usually before the age of thirty. The documentary’s second aim was to to get MTV to “pimp” Darius’s wheelchair.
The idea for the documentary came to Logan Smalley, the director of the film and a close friend of Darius, when the two were watching MTV’s Pimp My Ride. They started talking about how cool it would be if they pimped Darius’s “ride,” his wheelchair, and then decided to do everything they could to make this dream come true. The idea continued to evolve. The result is Darius Goes West, a documentary that raises awareness about DMD as it shares the amazing story of Darius Weems and his crew of friends traveling to California in hopes of getting Darius’s ride pimped.
Logan and Darius, their friends, and community raised enough money to fund the trip and film an inspiring documentary, which they do without professional help. The crew was made up of friends who were college students. Logan directed and edited the film himself. The film has participated in film festivals around the United States, won twenty-five awards to date, raised thousands of dollars for DMD research, and been featured on the Today Show. However, the real proofs of success are Darius’s laughter as he has the time of his life during the trip and the large amount of DMD awareness the film has brought.
This documentary is about more than getting rims for a wheelchair. It is about the strong bond of friendship between twelve guys that grows as they travel together having fun and showing Darius a world he hadn’t been able to experience. It is about educating people about DMD and bringing about a cure. However, the film is not serious. It is an entertaining trip around the country with twelve boys that will make you laugh and cry.
Not satisfied with simply sharing a great story and raising large amounts of money and awareness, the crew decided to create lesson plans to go along with the film. They launched a program called “Know About It,” which pairs innovative lesson plans with the film. These educational materials cover multiple subjectssuch as science, English, and mathematicsand teach students valuable lessons in fun. They also feature interactive ways to make subjects more relevant by relating them to DMD and Darius, and they show students how to help find the cure for a cure for DMD.
Barbara Smalley was a big part of both the documentary and the “Know About It” program. She is Logan Smalley’s mother and a key component in the success of Darius Goes West. She regularly travels with her son and other crew members to screenings around the United States. I had an opportunity to chat with her before I saw the film. Most mothers would be a little worried if their children approached them with the idea of a three-week road trip to California, accompanied only by eleven other guys. Barbara, however, was not fazed; she encouraged Logan and helped make things happen.
In Barbara’s words, “I’ve always been supportive of what they want to do, as long as it’s legal.” She set up hotel reservations, put the travelers in touch with people who wanted to donate, and provided general support. Logan initially had the idea in January 2005, and by July the group was on the road. Barbara became a part of the project and grew to love each of the members as her own sons. While they were on the trip, she kept a daily blog for people to follow as they became aware of the project. She posted daily and uploaded pictures.
Things have gotten busier as more and more people hear about Darius Goes West and want to be part of it. Barbara’s involvement in the project has morphed into a full-time job as she continues to help with almost every aspect of Darius Goes West. She has also been deeply involved with the “Know About It” program, putting her professional writing experience to work and shaping the lesson plans and curriculum. When asked if she missed her life before Darius Goes West, she replied, “It’s about a cause I fully believe in. I love these guys. If this went away, I’d miss it.” Since the “Know About It” program was launched in January 2008, schools have raised thirty-two thousand dollars for DMD research.
Things have certainly changed from that January in 2005 when Logan and Darius were watching MTV. Logan is currently pursuing his Ed.M. at Harvard University and Darius is in his fourth year of high school. Still, they and other crewmembers continue to make time to attend screening and question-and-answer sessions. The fame hasn’t gotten to them; their focus continues to be a cure for DMD. In Angwin, several hundred more people are aware of the disease and interested in helping bring about a cure.
Logan and two other members of the crew were available after the screening for a question-and-answer session. Students and community members asked questions and showed how the film had genuinely affected them. Afterward, Logan and the visiting crewmembers lingered in Paulin Hall, where students asked more questions, expressed how the film had touched them, and asked to take pictures. One month later, students were still talking about it, which is exactly what the crew of Darius Goes West wanted.
Mission accomplished. Hopefully, a cure for DMD is not far behind.
Elizabeth Rivera is a senior at Pacific Union College, Angwin, California. To learn more about Darius Goes West and how to help find a cure for DMD, visit Dariusgoeswest.com.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/435