On July 15th, I started working with the Joey Travolta Film Camp as part of my job at Steeltown. Steeltown’s Youth and Media program had partnered with the director of the camp, Carolyn Hare, and for the past two years, staff and interns have had the opportunity to work at the camp and act as “aides” for the kids.
If you are unfamiliar with the Joey Travolta Film Camp, as I’m sure many of you are, it is a two-week summer camp for kids and young adults on the autism spectrum. Joey Travolta himself (brother of John Travolta) directs the camp and has held similar programs in other cities for the past eight years. This is the third time that Carolyn has brought Joey and his team to the Burgh.
You can read more about the camp in my article on Steeltown’s website.
But I want to tell you the real story. Not that the article on Steeltown’s site isn’t true. I know it is because I wrote it. But this is my story and the kids’ story. This is behind the scenes. This is the heart of the camp.
I showed up on the first day of camp not really knowing what to expect. A few of my co-workers at Steeltown had told me that it was a lot of fun, that we help out with the kids and really just guide them along in their projects. But I didn’t know much about autism.
I knew a few students in my high school had autism, or something along the spectrum. I had taken a disabilities class in college that briefly touched on autism and how it may be very different for different people. But that was about all the experience I had.
And then I met these truly amazing kids. I was completely astonished by their creativity and their immense passion for film. Most of these kids had seen more movies than I will ever see in my life and they knew the directors, the producers, the video games that were associated with each sequel. They knew details about the film industry that I am still learning in my career. They could quote their favorite movies and rattle off a whole list of various others in specific sub-genres.
When someone asks me what my favorite movie is, I’m usually torn between saying The Notebook or Shrek. Neither of which sound particularly deep.
On the first day, my group’s leader, John, went over the basics of movies, and we came up with ideas. My group, the youngest kids in the camp, was particularly interested in action and science fiction. (To my disappointment, we wouldn’t be making any Notebook sequels.) They threw out all these amazing ideas, most of which were original and creative. But they didn’t stop there. They actually built upon each other’s ideas and added to the story. They were impressed by each other, they agreed with each other.
Now to be fair, they didn’t always agree and they weren’t always supportive. But they learned quickly that making a movie during these two weeks would be a group effort and it wouldn’t get done if they didn’t compromise.
During the group’s discussions, the volunteers’ job was to elaborate on ideas and get the kids heading in the right direction when they got stuck. For a while, my group was pretty stuck on a chase scene that involved someone turning into a zombie and ending up in a light saber battle. But we rolled with it. We kept the zombie theme, but added an ancient curse. It all came together, I promise.
The volunteers were needed most when the parents dropped their kids off in the morning and during the lunch break. We interacted with the quiet kids, introduced them to each other, started conversations and dispelled fights. We resolved disagreements and entertained and listened. This was the time when I got to know the kids in my group the best. And when I learned about autism.
I saw quite easily that autism did not affect each of these kids the same way. Some of them were extremely quiet, shy and introverted. But that didn’t mean that they wanted to be left alone. Some of them were very loud. They couldn’t sit still, they couldn’t keep quiet. Some of them liked things the way they liked things. Some of them needed personal space but others didn’t understand what personal space meant. Some of them were intensely focused and others had short attention spans. I realized that each of the kids at this camp for people with autism was different—in the same way that kids every day who do not have autism are different. They said that autism made them who they were—that it was a gift.
But these kids related to each other here. They saw their differences in each other and they connected in a way that they said they hadn’t been able to in a normal setting. They made friends with each other, they got on each other’s nerves and then apologized, they appreciated each other’s contributions to the group.
On the last day of camp, one of the students got on stage with his guitar and sang John Lennon’s “Imagine.” His singing and guitar skills were amazing, but it was his message that was inspiring–his conviction that the world would be a better place if we could all better understand and accept each other. We all put our arms on each other’s shoulders and swayed and I could just see that within these two weeks, everyone had become more like a family than a group of campers. It was a safe haven for these kids who were so often misunderstood.
In the afternoon, we watched a 45-minute highlight reel of the past two weeks. The true meaning of the camp was never more apparent. The cameras that had been on the whole time had captured each personality, the serious and the comical, the passionate and hopeful and determined. Joey interviewed each kid individually, and on camera, you can see them relax when they talk to him. You can hear their thoughtful, honest answers to both serious and silly questions.
You see, there are things these kids have taught me. Probably more than I actually taught them. They are creative, intellectual, passionate and inspiring and I think we could all take a lesson from that.
I must also mention that Carolyn did a phenomenal job pulling the whole camp together and she is really an amazing person; I’m truly glad to have been involved with the film camp.