By Hope Reese
“They said they would pay us $500,” Comer recalls, “and I said, ‘Oh! I’ll do anything you ask me to!’”
A year later, Comer became a published author with her heartbreakingly honest and nuanced portrait of her mother, who had died from an overdose of fentanyl and about 24 pills.
“I had recently lost my mother,” Comer says. “And I thought I could probably write about that forever.”
The piece was part of the Louisville Story Program’s first book, “Our Shawnee” (2014), a collection of stories by eight local high-schoolers about life in their town.
Since 2013, the Louisville Story Program has worked with a handful of underrepresented communities, helping unearth important personal stories. The nonprofit was founded by Darcy Thompson, who has worked full time as director since 2015, and its deputy director is local author Joe Manning, who serves as coach and mentor to many new writers.
The program’s goals are to strengthen community, share untold stories and support writers by paying for their work.
“We want to document the community from the inside out,” says Thompson. Books like “Our Shawnee” can be found throughout Kentucky as well as in the English classrooms of several local JCPS high schools.
Since 2013, the program has published “I Said Bang!: A History of the Dirt Bowl,” “We Can Hear You Just Fine: Clarifications from the Kentucky School for the Blind,” and “Available Light: Louisville Through the Lens of Bud Dorsey.”
In addition to books, the Louisville Story Program produces radio programs, photography exhibits and more. Currently, Thompson and Manning are working with nine young women at Iroquois High School, six of whom are immigrants or refugees, as well as a book on personal histories from the backside of Churchill Downs.
On Saturday, March 24, the Louisville Story Program will be hosting its second annual “Write-A-Thon” at Spalding University. It’s a fundraiser to support the program that offers participants a chance for a daylong writing gathering.
Comer will join the event, and as a visual artist, she says she plans to use the day to flesh out ideas for a graphic novel. Now 21, she paints, draws and works in retail.
Comer says the yearlong process of writing her story with the Louisville Story Program “taught me patience.” But more than that, “it gave me closure. It gave me an outlet to fully express myself. I could fully put everything down, warts and all, and I wouldn’t be punished for it.
“A lot of the things I wrote about, we weren’t really allowed to talk about,” she continues. “And when wounds are fresh, it’s hard to talk about them.”
Still, Thompson and Manning work hard to make sure the authors are aware of the material they are sending out into the world.
“There can be a fine line between empowerment and exploitation,” says Thompson. “We think about that a lot. Particularly with new authors, it’s important to hold high standards and push them, but there are times when it’s inappropriate to push. We’re trying to strike the right balance.”
“Sometimes,” Thompson says, “some of the most compelling material has not made its way into the published books. We’re accountable to them, their families, their communities, for years to come.”
For Comer and many other authors in the Louisville Story Program, the experience has had an unintended effect: helping authors reconnect with relatives. At her book launch, for instance, family members she hadn’t seen for years came out to support her.
And this isn’t the first time the program helped families reconnect. Ravon Churchill, one of the authors of “I Said Bang!,” learned from a high school security guard — who had read the book and reached out to him — that his brother, David, attended school there. He had a brother he had never met.
“Ravon showed up at David’s high school and said, ‘Hey, I’m your brother — and you have six other brothers and sisters you don’t know about,’” Thompson says. “David met his father for the first time through Ravon.”
Thompson hopes the experience won’t end for these new authors when the book goes to print, and it is dedicated to “leveraging the books into opportunities for our authors.”
The writing process, for instance, delivered Comer a group of friends.
“For me, in the long run, the value of life has gone up,” she says. “I have a support group now. I’ve made lifelong connections.”
Thompson says the feeling is mutual: “She’s like a daughter to me.”
In working with Comer, Thompson explains she was a “radically open person,” and the experience was “really beautiful and moving.”
“She had no fear,” he says. “I felt very privileged to witness her processing a lifetime’s worth of stuff. If only we could all see other humans like Callie Comer sees other humans — that generosity of spirit — what a world we would live in.”