Joey Travolta Film Camp works 'magic' with students
By Lou Fancher
People call what happens at Joey Travolta's Summer Inclusion Film Camps magic.
Miguel Elera, a 20-year-old camper from Brentwood, simply calls it "work." With his chest swelling with pride and his usual overabundant enthusiasm for life settling into a rare moment focused on a single sentence, Elera embodies the "magic" of an unusual camp hosted each summer by Lafayette-based nonprofit Futures Explored Inc. at St. Mary's College in Moraga.
"I remember my lines," he declares. " I say, 'I was bald, but now I have hair.'"
Elera, like the rest of this year's 60 campers who arrive mostly from the Bay Area but include participants from as far away as Ireland, has autism. The neurological condition known since 2013 as Autism Spectrum Disorder impairs an individual's social interactions, ability to communicate and certain motor skills. The symptoms range from mild to severe: thus, the "spectrum."
But what distinguishes the two-week film camp created to provide vocational training to people with ASD is how it erases boundaries that medical science -- and sadly, society -- strive to delineate.
"I see he's more confident," says Carmen Elera, about her son's experience at the camp. "He's been coming for five years. Before, in classes at school, he wasn't focused. Here, he's totally focused. I can't explain it. They have magic: it's comfortable, he feels he's no different. They treat him like any other child."
The tone set at the camp is largely attributable to Travolta, whose tremendous heart and compassion for people with special needs dwarfs his sibling's notoriety -- yes, actor John Travolta is his brother. The lesser-known Travolta is relentlessly ambitious and boastful about the camp's potential. Just because each day starts with a mass, group dance-off and hugs greet everyone within 10 feet of the former special education teacher turned entrepreneur, doesn't mean Travolta is running a circus.
"We have kids learning all the soft skills -- collaboration, leadership, responsibility -- from the process. It's script writing, editing, prop-making, filming, acting. Four interns who went on to our workshops in Bakersfield, Sacramento and Livermore are on the road with us now.
"They're getting the tools, managing their per diem. They're getting paid, so they're pros."
They're also part of Travolta's master plan.
"We're working on a temp agency for people with disabilities. The HR nightmare is the "What if it doesn't work out?" question.
"The temp agency we create will handle pensions and health care and take the company out of that equation. We do that now with our production company, but we want to do it on a bigger scale. We want to go into film studios and take that step to make it work for them."
Hester Wagner, director of Travolta's Futures Films production company and workshops in Livermore, says the biggest take-away from the camps is teamwork and altered perceptions.
"Students team-write without conflict. There's something magical that happens here. People think we have students sitting around while we create things around them.
"Instead, the students are doing it. I don't think people believe that until they come and see it for themselves."
Elera says she's learned to demand more from -- and for -- her son.
"At home, I now tell him he can do more. Before, I let the school district tell me what he's capable of. Now, I push. He's in a less restrictive class and he's progressing a lot."
For Isaiah Youngblood, 15, the trek from his Brentwood home is immeasurably worthwhile. Articulate, forthright, intensely sincere and exuding charm, it's fair to say he's at the far end of autism's spectrum. Even so, the camp works it's magic.
"The people here are really accepting," says Youngblood, whose found acting is the most rewarding activity.
"I could literally do anything and people don't react. There's no curse words, you get a hug every day.
"The adult volunteers might talk to us like we're younger kids at the beginning, but now that the other adults have filled them in, they talk to everyone normal." Youngblood's parents didn't want their son to feel awkward or excluded and chose not to tell him about his diagnosis until after his older brother "spilled the beans."
He says learning he has autism has led to "good conversations with friends" and is "not something I use as an excuse, but is an explanation for some things that I do, feel, or say."
Those things include feeling happier than his peers.
"When I was a kid, things didn't get to me as much. A lot of us on the spectrum are really brave, kind of fearless, because we don't mind being judged. It's not like I'm heartless, but if I feel something's not that bad, it isn't. The teenage things like dating, if I'm trying to get a girl and find she doesn't like me, I just say that's how it is. It's not the end of the world."
Youngblood says the hardest part of camp is team script writing, but even then, his world expands. "I wouldn't sugar coat it: sometimes ideas are not something I think will work or would only work if you had a million dollars for lasers. But then later, we can make an idea work in a comedic way. It shows how all things are possible and to take in ideas and not criticize as much."
This, more than anything else, is film camp's best take-away: magic, realized.
In August, Film Camp's Red Carpet event premieres the films made by students during the summer.