Lachlann Carter and Jenna Williams don’t strike me as the kind of couple that would command a towering structure that dominated the vista in Melbourne’s inner west. “Look for 100 Story Building” they instructed me over the phone, the nuances of which were lost to me as I circled the streets of Footscray on a bright Saturday morning in search of the storytellers.
Nestled amongst a colourful strip of shops and vendors, 100 Story Building cuts a perky but diminutive figure. Opened in August this year, the new writing and tutoring centre is a creatively rich space, providing dedicated programs for marginalised children and young people to develop their creative and expository literacy skills.
But Lachlann and Jenna will have you believe that they’re running a far more sinister operation. As legend has it, there are 99 floors of underground office space occupied by cranky writers, editors and publishers who only emerge at night to leave passive-aggressive messages on a corkboard before quickly scuttling below ground via a small wooden trap door. Or at least, that’s what the conspiring couple tell the kids.
In reality, the pair are more reluctant protagonists than megalomaniacs, clumsily unravelling their real story within the walls of the only (ground) floor of 100 Story Building.
“We met through a friend at university, I think,” begins Jenna tentatively, searching Lachlann’s face for encouragement.
“I wasn’t in uni,” corrects Lachlann with a hint of a smile. “We were doing a play together. It was called Cowboy Behave.”
It marked the first of many dramatic roles for Lachlann, who has stalked the decks as First Mate on the Polly Woodside tall ship and even moonlighted as Spot the Dog at a children’s book festival on year, where he regrettably stepped on two children. “Spot was much more popular than Clifford,” he offers.
These days he helms the day-to-day operations of 100 Story Building, training volunteers, running workshops and crafting the school holiday programs, drawing upon his natural flair for theatrics and a teaching degree that almost never transpired. “I’ve always enjoyed working with children and young people. I loved doing all the buddy programs and directing kids in plays, but teaching is hard.”
When he eventually returned to teaching in 2008, it was with renewed purpose. “I was volunteering at Melbourne Museum and making a lot of connections. I got an understanding of an educational resource space outside of a school,” he says, “that’s sort of where my passion ended up going, rather than the classroom.”
That passion for youth literacy development is acutely echoed in Jenna, who has always been interested in telling other people’s stories, and currently works at Footscray Community Arts Centre on a variety of programs that encourage cultural and arts practices among ethnic and indigenous communities.
Her background in educational publishing cultivated all-important relationships with editors, writers and illustrators, which have enabled the pair’s impressive cluster of projects that precede 100 Story Building: Pigeon Lettersand Pigeons: Stories in the Post Volume II, the published works of a collaborative story writing exchange, and Early Harvest, a partnership with Melbourne literary journal harvest magazine, set to launch its second issue later this year.
Immersed in the multicultural landscape of Melbourne’s inner-west, the couple remain mindfully aware of the challenges and realities of the vibrant community in which they live, work and love.
“We’re essentially working with kids that come from low socio-economic backgrounds and don’t often have a lot of opportunities,” says Jenna, “Sometimes it’s hard not to get caught up in doing everything you can for them and doing everything for free.”
With the help of third co-founder and long-time volunteer, Jessica Tran, 100 Story Building projects a sustainable vision of the couple’s passion and dedication to literacy development. “The more people who are involved and have ownership, the stronger the group will be and the organisation,” says Jenna.
Of their future plans, the couple are equally offhand and unaffected. “Book a trip on a big container vessel and go travelling around the world!” exclaims Lachlann, arms outstretched in mock grandeur. “Through the Suez Canal and then end up in far north Queensland (Jenna’s hometown),” adds Jenna.
It’s a fine escape plan for the reluctant protagonists, who through encouraging the stories of others, continue to weave a captivating tale of their own.