Gene Armentrout was surrounded by family when his heart beat its last pulse March 10, 2015. He was an avid tennis player, an amateur bridge partner, sometimes golfer and passionate runner for 25+ years. He was the guy running in Eden Park or on bridges across the Ohio River at lunchtime – in a Santa suit during December. Gene was also a respected businessman and philanthropist. A graduate of the first class of Leadership Cincinnati, his last position before retiring in 2012 was as president of Gradison Financial Services (later acquired by McDonald & Co. Securities, then Key Bank; currently owned by UBS). He was president of the Good Samaritan Hospital Foundation, and served on the Boards of the Urban League of Cincinnati, the Northern Kentucky University Foundation, the Business Advisory Council at Xavier University, and many other arts, humanitarian and educational organizations.
But more than that, Gene was a family man. He met Rita, the woman of his dreams, in first grade, and 58 of his 78 years were spent married to her. Together they enjoyed five children and eight grandchildren, and many lifelong friends.
It took just a few short months for Lewy Body Dementia (LBD) to rob friends, family, and a community of a man whose brain helped him achieve great accomplishments, who lived with passion and heart, who loved and gave love generously.
Gene’s daughter, Tish Hevel, had been living in Columbus for 20 years when her father became ill and she became a caregiver. It was during her search for more information that she learned of the critical need for brain donations to study the growing and vast number of neurological diseases and disorders. The decision was made to give that piece of her dad to benefit others.
Only it was a decision that came with far too many complications. In his final four hours, a time when Tish would have liked to have spent holding his hand, she researching how to ensure her dad’s final gift would be carried out.
More than 50 million Americans are estimated to have some form of neurological disorder, among them Parkinson’s, autism, dementia, schizophrenia, and CPE from concussions. In other words, about one in six of us will experience or know someone who is experiencing one of these disorders in our lifetime. Research has come a long way but human tissue is necessary in the quest for answers, and there simply is not enough of it being donated. Part of that reason is due to the complication of the donation process, part of the reason is a lack of knowledge and misunderstandings.
A New Chapter
Less than a year later, the Brain Donor Project, was an official 501C3 with a mission of raising awareness of the need while simplifying the process for human brain donation for research. Tish is its founder and president.
In just about seven months, already the Brain Donor Project has had almost 500 brains committed from 46 states and the District of Columbia, representing some 45 categories of brain disorders.
Brain Donations Simplified: How the Brain Donor Project Works
Arranging to donate your brain for research may be the most valuable legacy you can leave to improve the health and wellbeing of future generations. The first step is visiting http://www.braindonorproject.org to have your questions answered. In one stop you can register to donate your brain when you die, receive authorization and consent forms, and tell your friends
The Truths About Brain Donation
Registering as an organ donor IS NOT the same thing, and just because you have registered to donate your organs to science does mean you have also registered to give your brain. There is a different consent process for donating a brain.
You DO NOT need to have a brain disease in order to donate your brain. In fact, ‘control’ brains are in just as much demand and are just as valuable for research.
There is no additional cost to your family for donating your brain.
Bodies are not disfigured when brains are donated. Families can still plan for open casket funerals.
Hear Tish’s Story at TEDxCincinnati
And on June 17, she will be sharing her story at TEDxCincinnati.
This year, for the first time ever, TEDxCincinnati will be on a Saturday with new times and more ways to connect and learn. The Main Stage Event will be Saturday, June 17 at Memorial Hall, 1225 Elm St. Cincinnati, OH 45202 and will feature the same show at two convenient times:
Pre-Dinner Show at 5:00 pm (registration opens at 4:00 pm)
Post-Dinner Show at 8:30 pm (registration opens at 7:15 pm)
All guests are encouraged to attend the networking cocktail hour from 7:00 pm – 8:15 pm. Food trucks and entertainment will be on site while guests network with the evening’s speakers and performers.
It has been about three weeks now since I left the Duke Energy Center, exhausted (and sick) from an incredible experience of being part of one of the hardest working teams you will ever meet, all working toward a goal of building something so powerful and important as to positively affect an entire region, and the way in which its people see, appreciate and welcome one another.
The Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival organized by LADD is a leading example. It was the culmination of work by dozens of volunteers, a small core staff team who spent many long hours, sponsors, the media, and the community that ultimately made Cincinnati ReelAbilities a success. This was my second year serving as director of public relations for the event that has grown into one of the country’s largest film festivals centered around bringing people together to celebrate our uniqueness in our appearance, our cultures, and our ethnicities; and the way we participate in, see and interpret our world. Its films all shared a common theme of telling the stories of those who experience disabilities.
Susan Brownknight, executive director of LADD, has said time and again that ReelAbilities really speaks to who we are and what we value individually and collectively. What she referred to in her words is our sense of humanity, and the way in which we include and welcome each other in every facet of our community.
For four days, national celebrities were among us as we spent time meeting new friends, laughing, and opening dialogue to lead to new perspectives. Through the passionate messages of speakers at each of the parties, the discussions following films, and the casual networking in the hallways, communication flowed freely. Questions of curiosity and interest, that, under other circumstances may never be asked, were given open, honest and genuine answers. People diverse by age, race, religion, culture, appearance, and mode of pursuing life were valued. They were included.
Actor John Lawson told our audience at our Meet the Stars Opening Event, “One of the things I like about Cincinnati ReelAbilities is the hashtag #DifferentLikeYou. In those three little words, it says so much because we are all different like you but it is how we come together and use them that is our inspiration and our strength.”
RJ Mitte, our Premier Luncheon keynote speaker, so beautifully shared, “What you may perceive is abnormal is our normality. We live this. We know no different. I have never experienced a lot of these things these gentlemen and women have experienced in their life, and vice versa. The same can be said about you. There is a lot that you experience in your everyday life that we don’t know. The normality is that we all have our own normal and we need to remember that because we are all brought on this planet to evolve and to learn. And each of these challenges people perceive as disabilities are challenges that no one else except that individual will ever understand. Yes it is harder in certain areas. No one wants to have these types of physicalities, these types of mental weights but at the end of the day we all have them. Ours may be something you may consider severe but they are no different than everyday life. And we evolve, we grow and we try every day to live our normality. We wake up the same way. We do the same work. We live our lives and have families. And there really is no difference. And that is what we are trying to bring awareness to with this Festival. That is what is really crucial with these films. It brings a new normality to disability. You (the audience) can be that catalyst to represent that.”
Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein told our Interfaith Breakfast guests, “What this Film Festival is about, what the work that is being done is about, is about the idea of expressing the understanding and appreciating of the little things in life. It is the little things that we crave, that we want when we come in contact with a family of a disability. They want their child to be able to go outside, to the park, to go to school. They want to live a life of normalcy. They crave what makes life worth living.
The more that you crave those little things, the more that you want them. Those are things that go into life, the blessings. That is the core of creation. Celebrate the little things. The more you want a job, to go to school, to have a house, to have a family. That is the blessing.
When we spend time with people who have disabilities, we are not doing a charity. We are ultimately given the chance to connect with God. We are ultimately given the chance to appreciate life, to understand life. We are ultimately given the chance to come to appreciate everything in life that should be appreciated.”
Wow, such powerful, resonating words.
Following the Festival, a small group of us got together to celebrate. There we reminisced about some of the impact we saw. We remembered our VIP Bryan Anderson, a retired US Army sergeant, Purple Heart recipient, and Gary Sinise Foundation ambassador, showing a group of children how his prosthetic arm could rotate 360 degrees. We remembered when our VIPs stood before a full theatre of children to answer questions – one of them being, “How did you get your disability?” It was an opportunity for VIP and actress Jamie Brewer to explain down syndrome…and for VIP and actor/comedian Nic Novicki (who happens to have dwarfism) to tell them he didn’t eat his vegetables. And, after our Closing Night Event, one mother came up to someone on our team and shared that that night was the very first time her son had a reason to be proud of his disability.
Yes, Justice Bernstein, spending time at the Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival absolutely gave us the chance to appreciate and understand life, and everything in life that should be appreciated. That includes appreciating each other.
Thank you Cincinnati, for helping us celebrate our differences, for having open and receptive minds to learning, for helping to be part of strengthening our region by welcoming and including everyone.
My 2017 Cincinnati ReelAbilities Photo Album
(note: after a few seconds, when you move your mouse over it, you can tap on one of the arrows to move forward or backward in the photo album)
These past few weeks (and months) my blog has slowed as I’ve needed to focus much of my energy on promoting the 2017 Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival organized by LADD, Inc. (and a project for the Countryside YMCA and mixing in pet training). The Festival is now a week away, March 9 to 12, and I want to share information about it. I will be back after the Festival – I’ve already got some interviews lined up!
“The Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival is a spectacle of human relationship in its purest form, generating an awareness of issues relative to us all. Awareness creates understanding, which in turn gives rise to perspective—and it is through perspective that we are able to truly appreciate and relate to others in our lives.”
-Richard Bernstein, Michigan State Supreme Court Justice
I can’t think of any words that more beautifully, more accurately explain our purpose when it comes to building a Cincinnati ReelAbilities with celebrities, parties, workshops, networking opportunities, and over 60 life changing films that showcase the art, lives and stories of people who have disabilities. Our goal with the Film Festival is to create a Hollywood-style event where our guests will have fun, meet new and enjoy the company of old friends, be moved in some way; and leave having been uplifted with a new perception of difference, appreciation and welcoming of each other.
Susan Brownknight, executive director of Living Arrangements for the Developmentally Disabled (LADD, Inc.) – the organizing agency, has said she gets asked all the time why her nonprofit is investing such a significant amount of time and resources into building a world class film festival.
“My answer lies in the very foundation of what we do and why we do it. At LADD, we are focused and passionate about creating equal opportunities and ensuring the dignity of adulthood for all people with disabilities in our region, a community that embraces, supports and values them,” she answered, “A film festival is a powerful way for us to facilitate that and to connect with others across differences that typically lead to isolation and a hardening across arbitrary lines of thinking. Our idea with ReelAbilities is that, at the end of the day, this Film Festival is about who and what we value, and why we value it.”
Thursday, March 9 at 10:00 am: Welcome to Cincinnati: Meet the Stars Q&A Event with RJ Mitte and others
Thursday, March 9 at noon: Premiere Luncheon with keynote speaker RJ Mitte.
Thursday, March 9 at 6:30 pm: Premiere Night film reception and film screening of The Astronaut’s Secret.
Friday, March 10 at 8:00 am: Interfaith Breakfast featuring keynote speaker Richard Bernstein, the nation’s first blind Supreme Court Justice.
Friday, March 10 at 5:30: Veterans Reception with keynote speaker Michael Schlitz, retired US Army platoon sergeant, Gary Sinise Foundation ambassador and Purple Heart recipient, followed with a film screening.
Saturday, March 11 at 9:30 am: Veterans Brunch with keynote speaker Bryan Anderson, a retired US Army sergeant and Gary Sinise Foundation ambassador and Purple Heart recipient.
Saturday, March 11 at 5:00 pm: Cocktails & Zombies Party with the stars and screenwriters of Spring Break Zombie Massacre, Sam and Mattie; plus other Hollywood VIPs, and Cincinnati’s own Drew Lachey and Q102’s Jenn Jordan.
Sunday, March 12 at 7:00 pm: Local Films/Closing Night Party featuring game-changing films made by and about local people.
Additionally, Festival guests can learn how to act, model, tell their story, see entertainment, and create films on their smart phone in workshops. Please click here for the full list. While all workshops are free, registration is required.
Celebrities Help Us Celebrate Difference
Best known for his role of Walter ‘Flynn’ White Jr. for five riveting seasons of AMC’s Emmy and Golden Globe Award-winning thriller, “Breaking Bad”, and the handsome face of GAP’s International 2014 “Lived In Summer” Campaign, RJ Mitte tops our list of Hollywood stars, dignitaries, and ReelAbilities film VIPs to join us at the Duke Energy Convention Center.
Please join us at 10:00 am on Thursday, March 9 to kick off Cincinnati ReelAbilities with a Welcome to Cincinnati: Meet the Stars Q&A Event with RJ and many of our other big name VIPs including Jamie Brewer, Lauren Potter, Kurt Yaeger, John Lawson, Nic Novicki, Bryan Anderson, Michael Schlitz, Boone Cutler, and Steve Wampler.
More VIPs will be joining us throughout the weekend’s events including Ali Stroker, Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein (as the keynote speaker for our Interfaith Breakfast), Sam and Mattie, Drew Lachey, Nick Clooney, and more.
Below is a list our leading VIPs and their information.
Anderson is a retired US Army sargaent and Gary Sinise Foundation ambassador and purple heart recipient.
A Disability Rights Attorney, he made history when he was sworn into office, becoming the nation’s first state Supreme Court Justice for the state of Michigan.
Known for her role of Adelaide ‘Addie” Lagdon in American Horror Story, she is also the first model with Down syndrome to walk the runway at New York Fashion Week.
Cutler is an author, columnist, music video director and Warfighter Rights leader that has become the first nationally recognized radio talkshow personality who is also a combat veteran from the current war. In 2012, Boone was diagnosed with Early-Onset Parkinson’s Disease secondary to a blast-injury in Iraq and is the national spokesperson for the Warfighter Rights’ Movement.
Lawson is a television, film and commercial PWD actor with past roles in the long running television crime dramas, “Law and Order,” “Law and Order: SVU and FX AMERICAN HORROR STORY: FREAK SHOW.
Known for his role in AMC’s ‘Breaking Bad’, he was also the face of the GAP’s International 2014 “Lived in Summer” Campaign.
Nic has toured around the country as a standup comedian. Included in his acting credits are tv shows: The Sopranos, Private Practice, and Austin and Ally. He is also a producer and founder/director of the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge.
As an actress, Lauren is best known for her popular role as Becky Jackson in the popular television show, Glee. However, she also devotes much time to advocating and raising awareness for disability related causes..and against bullying.
Schlitz is a retired US Army platoon seargeant, Gary Sinise Foundation ambassador and purple Heart recipient.
An actress known for her role in Glee, in 2015 Stroker made history by becoming the first Broadway actress in a wheelchair to appear on a Broadway stage
Sam Suchmann and Mattie Zufelt
These two best friends from Rhode Island met in Special Olympics and are filmmakers of the wildly popular, kick ass movie, Spring Break Zombie Massacre.
A former BMX rider turned actor, Yaeger is a below the knee amputee. His most recent TV credit s include the fan favorite character on FX’s hit show Sons Of Anarchy, the new Cinemax show Quarry and a new major recurring role on CBS’ hit NCIS: Los Angeles.
As the world and his family watched, Steve Wampler who was born with a severe form of cerebral palsy, pulled himself with one hand 20,000 times in six days to conquer the world’s biggest rock, El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. The documentary of his journey was one of the 2015 Cincinnati ReelAbilities films.
I have gotten to know Melissa these past few months through my work with the Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival. She is a volunteer whose leadership and passion is greatly furthering the cause of our Festival whose goals are for people to change the way they perceive difference, to break down communication barriers, and to build a more welcoming, inclusive community.
I wanted to introduce Melissa to you and share some of her story.
Melissa graduated with honors from Wright State University with a Bachelor of Science in Business in 2000 and graduated in 2016 from the University of Phoenix with a Master of Information Systems. From being a career woman with Hewlett Packard Enterprises as an asset manager in the USPS Division to a single mother of her daughter, Claudia, she strives to reach the high goals she has set for herself. She never allows anyone to tell her she “can’t” do something; she figures out how to achieve it.
Spinal Muscular Atrophy, which has caused her to use a wheelchair for mobility, has also been a driving force for much of her volunteer work. In her free time, Melissa serves on the National Board of Directors for Cure SMA, assists her daughter’s school with administrative and fundraising tasks, assists her MDA office with Summer Camp, speaks at many events to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities. She is also the chair of the Accommodations Committee for the 2017 Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival as well as a Film Reviewer.
Lisa: You are Ms. Wheelchair Ohio 2005 (MWO) and 3rd Runner Up Ms. Wheelchair America 2006. What has that experience meant to you and why is that Pageant important?
Melissa: Although I am no longer involved with the Ms. Wheelchair Ohio/America program, my time in the program was spent focused on helping other young girls and women with disabilities realize whatever dreams they have are in reach. I am a firm believer that the only limitations in life are the ones you place upon yourself. When I was MWO 2005 and ran the MWO program, I was an advocate of promoting the idea that these women were successfully living lives despite the need for a wheelchair for their day to day mobility. Society has a habit of seeing a person in a wheelchair as someone who cannot possibly be living a ‘normal’ life and that is something I wanted to change, even if just on a minor change, with the MWO program.
Lisa: You are so passionate about being involved with Cincinnati ReelAbilities. Why is the Festival important to you and why is it important that the community participate in and support it?
Melissa: When Susan Brownknight (executive director of LADD, Inc.) and Molly Lyons (LADD, Inc. director of development and external relations) first approached me about becoming involved in the ReelAbilities Festival, I was skeptical about becoming involved at first. Because I was so used to programs that were ‘feel good’ programs, I did not want to support another program that promoted the idea of able-bodied people doing ‘good’ for the disabled community and getting a pat on the back. To my surprise, they explained that ReelAbilities was actually the opposite of that so I was onboard.
The Festival itself and the message it promotes is important to me because mainstream media tends to promote the idea that people with disabilities need pity, are living lives not worth living, or are a drain on their families. For example, in the film/book ‘You Before Me’, the message was spread that death is better than living with a disability. The Cincinnati ReelAbilities Festival has films from all spectrums of disabilities and promotes people living their lives doing very ‘normal’ things despite having a disability. Now, don’t get me wrong, having a disability is challenging and even frustrating at times; however, I believe I can do anything I want to do, I just may need to do it differently.
Lisa: What is one of your greatest satisfactions of being a mother?
Melissa: My daughter is the sunshine of my life and I am thankful for her every day. Although I was unsure how a pregnancy would turn out, I knew I wanted to be a mother so I did everything possible to bring her into the world as healthy as possible. She ended up coming into the world 9 weeks early but you certainly couldn’t tell it today. She’s a happy, healthy, smart, sassy almost 10 year old and one of my greatest satisfactions is being able to watch her grow into a young lady while trying to teach her what she needs to know along the way. I love my career but my true, most rewarding job is raising my daughter and having her is the best decision I ever made.
Lisa: Who is someone who has great impacted your life and how?
Melissa: Being Catholic, my faith is extremely important to me and that faith was something instilled in me as a child from my Mother. She always taught me to have faith that God would see us through whatever challenge we were facing and, as an adult, I am very thankful to her for this. In fact, I am following her lead and raising my daughter with that same faith in God.
Lisa: What is an obstacle that you have overcome and how has that strengthened you?
Melissa: It is hard to choose one obstacle in my life that I have had to overcome because my whole life has been full of them. From teachers in school thinking that my mind didn’t work because my legs didn’t work to co-workers thinking I was given my job to fulfill a percentage of hiring obligation, my life has been a constant circle of proving myself to others. Although it can be exhausting at times, it has also taught me to just be who I am and do what I need to do regardless of what others may think of me. It has also given me patience to raise a very spirited, wonderful child.
To organize a MEGA animal adoption event that finds homes for some 800+ animals, it takes a MEGA crew of hard working volunteers to make it happen. That event is the My Furry Valentine, our region’s largest adoption event that finds homes for pets from about 35 different rescue groups. And two names I want to recognize with that event are Carolyn Evans of PhoDOGrapher and Jennifer Grimmett.
Carolyn, and her pet photography business, is host and founder of My Furry Valentine. She is also someone with a HUGE heart for animals…and people. She has captured the spirits of furry friends for more than a decade; and her photographs have helped many animals find forever homes. Caroline is an ardent supporter of the No-Kill movement, the Board Secretary of HeARTs Speak, a united group of artists united to break down the myth that animals from rescues and shelters are inferior, and the Board President of My Furry Valentine.
Jennifer Grimmett is an assistant principal for an online high school; and serves as My Furry Valentine’s volunteer coordinator. It is Jennifer’s role to recruit, coordinate and manage about 265 volunteers for the two day event. It is a non-paid position that has required dozens of hours, and has even gotten her family including her children involved.
Spending that kind of time on anything generally takes someone driven by passion…something both Caroline and Jennifer have. You can read more about Carolyn in my past interview here.
Jennifer told me she has always loved animals. It is something shared by her entire family including her husband, Mike, and two daughters, Michael and Audrey. All three of their cats and their Pug, Finn, are all rescues. Finn came into their lives via a Columbus prison rehabilitation program for dogs, and is every bit a ‘mama’s dog,’ going most places Jennifer goes.
While she has spent so many hours communicating with people online or over the telephone, Thursday will be a big night as all volunteers will congregate for a big orientation meeting prior to the event. “I really can’t wait until our big volunteer meeting this Thursday before the event. It will be my first time meeting everyone in person. It will be the only time when everyone is in one room together. I think it will be amazing to share that positive energy with everyone,” Jennifer told me.
This year’s Main Event will again be held at the Sharonville Convention Center (11355 Chester Road; 45246) and will feature hundreds of adoptable pets (dogs, cats, puppies, kittens and other small critters) from dozens of different rescue and shelter groups from around the Greater Cincinnati area. Every pet adopted from our Main Event will go home with swag and adopters can enter to win one an adopter raffle basket.
As a courtesy to the adoptable animals already on site as well as for the safety and well-being of guests, owned pets are not allowed at the event. If you’d like to schedule a meet-and-greet between your current pet and a potential adoptee, My Furry Valentine suggests you contact that rescue or shelter directly.
If you are unable to attend the MFV Main Event, be sure to check out the many participating locations throughout the city. Satellite events are hosted throughout Greater Cincinnati by My Furry Valentine participating rescues and shelters. You can find a list on the My Furry Valentine website.
Early Bird Entry, Saturday: 10am – 12pm
Saturday, February 11th, 12pm – 6pm
Sunday, February 12th, 10am – 5pm
General Admission: $5 per person, ages 5 and up
Early Bird Admission: $25 for 1, $40 for a pair, children 17 and under free when accompanying an adult.
In my So Much PETential pet behavior blog, I wrote about some considerations to keep in mind BEFORE you go. Please click here to read them.