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North Hills Monthly

Joey Travolta Film Camp Helps Young People with Autism Gain Lifelong Skills

Feb 26, 2016 05:38PM ● By Erica Cebzanov
The Arts for Autism Foundation of Pittsburgh will hold its sixth annual Joey Travolta Film Camp July 25 through Aug. 5 at Winchester Thurston School’s Shadyside campus.

Travolta, a former special-education teacher and actor John Travolta’s brother, will lead 50 campers through the filmmaking process. The attendees, typically aged 9 to 25, will break into groups to produce five- to seven-minute pieces adhering to a theme, such as last year’s Shark Tank or a previous year’s Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood parody, Mr. Joey’s Block. “They have full creative control over their films,” explained Carolyn Hare, the director of the Arts for Autism Foundation, adding that the students have created everything from horror to comedies to film noir.

Travolta edits the films into a 60-minute documentary for a January red carpet premiere at Waterworks Cinemas. “We make a big event out of the red carpet,” said Hare. “We have volunteers and local media personalities serve as paparazzi. We watch the film and all of the filmmakers stick around to sign autographs. Then we have a luncheon to celebrate.”

The public is invited to attend for a $10 donation to the foundation’s scholarship fund. Many of the campers, some of whom reside in other states or countries, are often unable to see each other between the summer camp and premiere. “The time apart builds momentum,” said Hare. “The folks on the red carpet are so excited to see each other.”

While many past participants have had intellectual and developmental disabilities, the camp is inclusive. Hare said the program helps neurotypical campers gain acceptance for those with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). “For kids with autism, having regular interactions with neurotypical people builds social skills and communication,” she said, adding that those with ASD also benefit from learning the skills necessary for independent living and employment. “We want the students to have a fun summer experience, but we also want them to build toward future goals.” The camp has enabled some attendees to find local jobs as actors, production assistants and key grips.

A former special education teacher herself, Hare met Joey Travolta in Bakersfield, CA, at one of his four other camp locations. “It was incredibly moving to see students talking about how film camp changed their lives and how they were going to take the lessons learned in camp and translate them to other aspects of their lives,” she said. Through fundraising and community support, Hare brought the program to Pittsburgh, launching the foundation to sustain the camp. In addition to running the nonprofit, she works as a clinical director at Autism BrainNet, which procures and researches post-mortem brain tissue to study autism’s causes.

“It’s a time-intensive, volunteer-intensive and also expensive program to run,” Hare said. She seeks volunteers, especially those with grant writing, counseling, teaching and mentoring experience. Interns, such as University of Pittsburgh psychology student Jessica Callaghan, have assisted Hare, and her positive internship experience led her to commit to volunteering at this summer’s camp.

And the experience benefits more than just the camp students. “I am grateful for the opportunity to work with such a talented and caring crew and to spend my days with incredible campers who change my life and open my mind,” wrote Arts for Autism board member and film camp volunteer Heather Conroy for the nonprofit’s blog. The licensed clinical social worker works with ASD clients through Evolve Coaching.

Enterprise Rent-a-Car, the Hilton Garden Inn Pittsburgh University Place and Panera Bread sponsor the area camp. The foundation fundraises to offer scholarships toward the $1,800 camp tuition, and many students are able to attend under the auspices of extended school year programing through an individualized education program (IEP). For more information, visit www.afapgh.org.