For the past six years, free writing workshops offered through nonprofit Deep have been igniting the minds of youth across Savannah-area middle schools.
Now the public can scout future Toni Morrisons and Allen Ginsbergs at Deep Speaks!, the organization's semi-annual literary reading and book launch, on Feb. 3 at the Savannah Theatre.
The evening is both action-packed and deeply moving. While kids shine in the spotlight, families in the crowd support each participant and revel in the power of the spoken word.
Deep Speaks! is also a veritable who's who of local education leaders and Savannah literati.
Deep started humbly, with two 75-minute workshops in 2009. Since then, it's grown to meet the demands for programming in every public middle school in the district.
Over its history, Deep has served more than 1,200 students, produced 52 anthologies of student writing and published a comprehensive creative writing curriculum.
Deep has trained more than 100 writing fellows, community members who help students share their stories. Each semester, 40 applicants are selected and paired with co-teachers to lead workshops.
Twice a year, Deep publishes books that feature the best stories and poems crafted by young authors. The public can even check out Deep books from the Live Oaks Public Library.
As a veteran officer of the U.S. military, interim director Joanna Dasher knows a thing or two about organizing a platoon of volunteers.
"If I learned anything in the army, it was how to motivate very different folks around a single mission or goal," she said. "When people believe strongly in the mission, like our volunteers do, that task is pretty easy.
"Plus, I get to work with some of the smartest, kindest, most curious and creative people in this city, which keeps me motivated," Dasher said.
Deep Speaks! is certainly an ensemble production. Local artist YoungJu Kim creates ethereal illustrations for the publications' covers.
"We are incredibly grateful for that because she's a brilliant artist," Dasher said.
Book layout is accomplished in-house, "with the help of some talented design and photography interns from SCAD."
In addition to motivating volunteers, Dasher also keeps the Savannah community monetarily invested.
"We could not do this work if it weren't for the generosity of our donors, especially the Savannah Community Foundation, the Georgia Council for the Arts, the United Way of the Coastal Empire, the City of Savannah Department of Cultural Affairs and of course, our Deep Patrons, who give $12 a month to fully fund a scholarship for one of our young authors," she said.
"The kids know that our community is paying for their scholarship to the program, and that's a powerful message we're sending."
Of course, writing fellows contribute their time, energy and expertise. But they also receive much in return.
Kolby Harrell was recently named Deep's fellowship community organizer.
He organizes enrichment programs for fellows, both public, such as kickoff cocktail parties and author lectures, and those only open to Deep volunteers, such as writer retreats and literary salons.
As a freelance writer and substitute teacher for Savannah-area public schools, Harrell's involvement in Deep was a natural fit.
"Deep offers a project-based solution to improve the performance of local school kids," he said.
"Deep kids do better on state-mandated tests," Harrell also pointed out.
According to a study from 2012, students who took just one semester of Deep writing workshops improved their scores on a mock Georgia state writing test by an average of 20 percent.
Plus, Harrell said, it's fun.
"After graduating from college, instead of considering exotic opportunities ... I looked in my own backyard," he said. "With Deep, I feel like an active player in my own neighborhood."
Elaine Briney, a local poet, collegiate tutor and writing fellow since winter 2011, agreed.
"It was one of the first community service opportunities I pursued when I moved to Savannah," she said.
She teaches a special session geared to a dozen more advanced students who meet at the Bull Street public library every Sunday.
"We help them submit to contests and publications, targeted for high school students and writers of young adult fiction," Briney said.
On Feb. 3, the public will get a taste of the smorgasbord of Deep talent.
Highlights from the free event will include revealing the winners of several awards, including the DeepKid Laureate and Deep's award for excellence in teaching and mentoring.
Doors open at 6 p.m. and the reading will start promptly at 6:30 p.m. No tickets are required. Seating is first-come, first-served.
Dasher revealed there's usually one child who gets a little stage-shy in front of the nearly 600-person theater capacity. With the support of their community and weeks of training, they take their turn in the spotlight and read.
"They're doing something I know most adults wouldn't do: Reading their writing before a crowd of hundreds of people. Afterwards, that same kid walks off of the stage forever changed, with a huge smile," Dasher said. "There's a metamorphosis that takes place there in just a few minutes that is like nothing else."