Darius comes south
By Whitney Skeeters
How often is your hero a kid in a wheel chair?
That is exactly what Logan Smalley, director of the multi-award-winning documentary, "Darius Goes West: The Role of his Life," asked himself as he and the crew received an astounding welcome at a Syracuse high school earlier this year.
On Thursday, December 4, Athens-native Darius Weems went south…to Morgan County High School. The Darius Goes West crew was invited to visit after each grade watched the documentary in their English classes. The students really responded to the film, so principal Mark Wilson decided to surprise them with an assembly they were told was about holiday safety. When Darius rolled through the doors instead, the gym exploded with excitement.
"Darius Goes West" began when 15-year-old Darius, who was diagnosed with the terminal disease Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, came up with a goal: get his wheel chair “pimped out” on the hit MTV television show, "Pimp My Ride." He “rapped” out his requests to MTV and in 2005, he and 11 other boys set out on a three-week adventure in a somewhat trusty RV from Georgia to California. Audiences saw Darius swim in both the Atlantic and the Pacific, take in the majesty of the Grand Canyon, camp-out in the wilderness, and create memories with some of his best friends along the way. Once it was over, they transformed the footage into a touching documentary to raise money and spread awareness of muscular dystrophy to younger generations. Over the years, it has been awarded 28 festival awards, several for Best Feature, Audience Favorite, and Best Documentary. This flick created by 12 young men with little to no experience from Athens has been heralded in the LA Times, Variety, the Today Show, Nightline, and many more.
According to a press release on the Web site, the film “focuses on ability, not disability.” Even though it has its share of heart-wrenching scenes, it is very much a movie about friendship and living life to the fullest. As viewers laugh through the tears, it is readily apparent that Darius is a figure any young person can relate to.
It seemed as if that were the case amongst students at MCHS. Although he was there to promote awareness of MD, they asked more personal questions such as what his favorite football team was or if he got in trouble when his mother heard him say a curse word on the film.
Barbara Smalley, the manager of the Darius Goes West headquarters and the mother of Logan, the director, and Ben, another crew member, said that is part of the team’s overall objective.
“I like it when they ask the general friendly questions because to us that means they are looking beyond his disability and thinking of him as a regular person, and that’s what he wants them to do,” said Smalley.
Darius wasn’t treated as if he were completely “normal.” He was more like a superstar. The teens flocked to get their picture taken with him and screamed with delight when he grabbed the microphone.
“It was really nice that he came out here,” said junior Shunise Reid. “He’s like a celebrity.”
“He’s really cute too!” said senior Osha Pittard.
Four years after the trip west, Darius and crew set their sights on another ambition: sell one million copies of their DVD in one year, beginning on Darius’s birthday, September 27, 2008. This is a significant year for Darius because he is 19 years old, the same age his brother, Mario, died from the same disease Darius himself suffers from.
To promote the film, they are taking the year to travel around the country to fundraise and visit schools. It has been a constant life of motion: after leaving Madison’s city limits, they returned to Athens where they took the award for Most Original Float in Athens’ Christmas parade. The next morning, they visited two schools in Atlanta and then it was off to Birmingham, Alabama, and after that, five days touring schools in Florida. On December 14, they will leave for a cruise around the Caribbean that talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres gave them on her show, "Ellen," which repeated due to high ratings.
According to crew member John Hadden, the ages of team members ranges from 19 to 29.
“We are all doing this all the time, five to six days a week, taking a year off and focusing on this entirely,” said Hadden.
Barbara said Logan came up with the idea and asked each of the original crew members, figuring maybe three or four would say yes. Half were in the process of completing college degrees, while others held jobs.
“All of them said yes, that is how dedicated they are in the cause,” she said.
Darius and crew have already raised over $1.5 million. The DVD costs $20, with $17 going toward MD research. If they accomplish this goal, they will have raised $17 million for Duchenne.
Inspired by his visits, many schools around the country have started their own fund-raisers for the project. Wilson said he hopes MCHS will also soon jump on the wagon.
“It is in development, we’ve got a number of students who want to do something,” said Wilson. “Stay tuned!”
He also encourages the rest of the citizens to get involved as well as the holiday season arrives.
“Buy a DVD! It is a perfect Christmas present. If anybody wants to get some, we have some here at the high school or they can get it on the Web site,” Wilson said.