headed by Fast Company columnist Nancy Lublin, has recognized four
young social entrepreneurs with $10,000 grants–and one with a prize of
$100,000. Fast Company will profile one of these enterprising youth
each day this week.
It’s the morning after the night before, and Darius Weems can’t get over his red-carpet experience. “Russell Simmons!” he says in awe. “Russell Simmons! He was standing there, shoulder to shoulder with me.” And later, during the Do Something awards ceremony at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, Simmons had presented Weems with $10,000 and honored him for his work raising awareness for Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a fatal genetic disorder that took his brother’s life and will eventually claim his too.
For this small-town, wheelchair-bound kid from Georgia, the awards were the latest stop in a wild journey that began with a fantastic question posed by Weems and a group of his buddies: Do you think we could get MTV to pimp my ride?
“I was just chilling at home–didn’t know nothing but my hometown,” Weems says. Then, in the summer of 2005, he and his friends got that idea, boarded an RV, and set out for L.A. They stopped in Florida, where he saw the ocean for the first time. (“I’d heard people talk about the beach. Years and years, I was wondering how something that beautiful would look,” he says. “It was amazing.”) They visited New Orleans, Carlsbad Caverns, the Grand Canyon, San Diego, and finally, L.A. There, (spoiler alert) MTV rejected his request–and became the ultimate villain of the affecting, effective documentary that recorded the trip, “Darius Goes West.” (The movie’s subtitle: “The Roll of His Life.”)
The film, which came out in 2006, won awards at dozens of film festivals and became the platform for Weems to raise more than $2 million for Duchenne research. “Not a lot of people know about [the disease]–too many people don’t know,” Weems says. “But they see the movie, they’re down with the cause.”
After seeing the movie, kids have organized dance marathons, held bake sales, given their savings to aid research into the 100% fatal disease, which kills more young boys than any other genetic disorder. Students at one Georgia high school teamed up to send a DVD of “Darius Goes West” and a handwritten letter to every other high school in America; a Syracuse, New York, junior high did the same for middle schools. Adults, too, have embraced his cause: Weems and Logan Smalley, the director of the documentary, were made TED fellows, and Volvo gave Weems $25,000 as part of a program honoring America’s hometown heroes.
The outpouring of goodwill–which has been accompanied by plenty of criticism of MTV–has encouraged Weems to keep talking about his condition. “I’ve got to use my mouth for something,” he says. His new goal is to sell 1 million DVDs by the end of September. (Seventeen dollars from each sale goes to Duchenne research.)
But the constant travel–speeches, public appearances, as many as three screenings per day–“has kind of tired me out,” he says. He logged more than 30,000 miles between September and March, which prompted his doctor to force him to slow down, worried that the work was overtaxing Weems’s ever-frailer body. He is now 19, the same age as his brother Mario was when he died.
At the Do Something awards, Weems got an additional prize to remind him that the work he has started will continue even if he can’t be on the road himself. MTV announced that it will air his movie on MTV2 and MTVu.
More winners’ stories:
Eric Glustrom: Choosing Your Own Adventure in Uganda
Marvelyn Brown: Raising HIV Awareness, One Young Person at a Time
David Burstein: Getting the Facebook Generation Out to Vote