In Bloordale Village you might come across a shop that seems to be an ordinary coffee shop, but which is actually a lounge for space travellers called the Intergalactic Travel Authority. Here you can order a black hole coffee or a Venus cappuccino. What goes on behind the spaceship portal is supernatural; it’s Story Planet’s home-base.
With four staff members and 150 regular volunteers, Story Planet is a charity that uses creative writing and art to help get kids and teenagers excited about writing. Its goal is to help kids from grade 1 to grade 12, become effective communicators through free writing workshops held in a comfortable and safe environment where they can freely express themselves and just have fun.
Liz Haines, the creator and Alien Chieftess of Story Planet, was a children’s television director, producer and writer. She originally wanted to find a way to represent the stories kids tell on television. Children’s television has great stories but kids, she says, “tell stories that are crazy and divergent,” and can sometimes be violent. “Developmentally, it’s a huge part of actually what they need to express.” In 2009, Haines started doing literary workshops in schools and community centres, and Story Planet was born. She realized she did not want these stories to end up on TV; rather, she wanted a way to help youth tell their stories and communicate.
Soon after she came across 826 National, a writing centre for kids in America founded by author Dave Eggers and educator Ninive Calegari, Haines travelled to its base, 826 Valencia in San Francisco, and participated in its 101 Seminar. She learned how she could start a literary non-profit in her own community. In February 2012, Story Planet held its first workshop in its rented building at 1165 Bloor Street West, which they paid for with donations and grants. In July 2012 the Intergalactic Travel Authority opened, a café whose profits go to Story Planet. 826 National has become a mentor for them.
With free programming comes the problem of finding funding. Haines is trying to fundraise with events like the Mad Libs Story Battle held on April 25, 2013. Each table at the fundraiser had a Mad Libs booklet and competed to come up with the most outrageous story on a particular topic, such as – “how to survive a riptide.” The stories were then assessed by a panel of five celebrity judges. This was the first fundraising event for Story Planet and it was successful. Though Haines never imagined being involved in fundraising, she says, “It’s part of the landscape when you’re a charity and also part of the outreach.”
The outreach allows more parents to discover Story Planet, which leads to more kids discovering and enjoying creative writing. Haines has witnessed kids skip recess in order to continue working on their stories, and these were children who avoided writing before. Once children find the confidence and the attention they need, says Haines, there is no stopping them.