Philanthropy – volunteers and nonprofits
It is a dream of most girls, to step out in a gorgeous evening gown, a flower corsage on her wrist and a young man on her side as she enters the darkened space. Her peers crowd the floor, watching her enter in awe. Her smile illuminates the room.
But, if not for a local nonprofit organization, Kenzie’s Closet, that dream would not come true for hundreds of teens every year. Kathy Smith knows. She has seen them transform from forlorn, hopeless girls into bundles of joy and laughter when they see themselves in a mirror, just as their dream had pictured them.
At no cost to them, Kenzie’s Closet provides prom attire to juniors and seniors at accredited Tri-State high schools who otherwise would not be able to afford dressing up for their important occasion. Even more than that, the organization provides a shopping experience for each young lady to shop in a boutique with a volunteer personal shopper there to help select the perfect dress.
Kathy was executive director of Kenzie’s Closet for four years, retiring just before our ReelAbilities Film Festival, for which she served as our volunteer chair.
Lisa: Why is this a cause for which you are so passionate?
Kathy: When I was interviewed for my position, I remember being asked a very similar question. They wanted to know why I wanted the job. My answer was that, if Kenzie’s Closet had existed in 1968, I would have been a Kenzie’s Girl. The only reason I was able to go to my prom was because a neighbor bough me my dress. All of Kenzie’s Girls are at or below the poverty level. They don’t have the resources available to buy or rent fancy dresses. Prom should be the highlight of their life. It was important to me to make sure that each girl have the opportunity to get the dress of their dreams. They get brand new shoes, a purse, a wrap, two pieces of jewelry and free alterations; and they keep everything, although we have had many donate back their dresses so that another girl can have the same experience. We are planting the seeds of philanthropy early.
Lisa: Can you share any moments that really touched you?
Kathy: There are so many of them. I felt like we were in many ways like being Fairy Godmothers. Coming to Kenzie’s Closet for these teenagers is their time to shine. Often, they arrive expecting to find a sort of thrift shop but they quickly realize it is very different. They may be scared when they walk through the door and by the time they are finished, they are hugging their personal shopper.
I remember one young woman who came in with a group. She was very tall and large. She kept giving me this look out of the corner of her eyes. She told me with a hardness in her voice that she didn’t think we would have anything for her. I looked at her and said, “Guess what? You are totally wrong.”
After going through her shopping, I went up to her and asked what happened that day. She asked if I wanted the truth. Tears began streaming down her face. She told me that her entire life she had been given torn or tattered clothing and been expected to give thanks. I asked her again what had happened. This time she put her chin out and told me, “Not only did you have a dress to fit me, I got to pick my own prom dress. And there is nothing smack about it.”
Lisa: What are some of your take-aways from your time leading Kenzie’s Closet?
Kathy: I knew all along that we were making dreams come true for over 400 young ladies each year. But I also had my dream come true working there. Our founder was my boss and she was so supportive and believed in me – not everyone has that. I worked with two incredible women that made going to work a pleasure – again not everyone has that. We had about 120 volunteers each year; they were always so joyful and happy to be there — again this helped me have an incredible career. My time at Kenzie’s Closet was a dream come true for me!
You may have seen TT Stern-Enzi’s film reviews on FOX 19 or in CityBeat. He also writes for the Dayton CityPaper. Several months ago, I had the pleasure of meeting him over coffee. He has such a kind soul about him and when he talks about his passions – films, kids, and family – he is an open book.
It is no wonder that in addition to writing about films, he has recently established a nonprofit organization called WatchWriteNow that combines it all. Through WatchWriteNow, TT uses film as a means for developing critical thinking and analysis skills in students, exposing them to creativity as well. He develops programs where participants have weekly exposure to him, then go home to watch and talk about movies and shows with their parents, siblings, and friends. Students also write commentary for TT’s WatchWriteNow blog.
Let’s learn more about TT.
Lisa: Tell us about your love for film, including where it began and how it has evolved.
TT: My earliest memories of movies go back to my mother, before I even started going to see them. My mom loved music and would buy soundtracks (Shaft, Trouble Man, etc.) and I remember spending hours staring at the album covers. I wasn’t old enough to see the movies, but I probably made up my own movies based on those LP sleeves. Then, when I started school and proved to be a dedicated student, my mom would take me to the movies after school, as a treat for a good report card. She took me to whatever I wanted to see (that was appropriate, of course), which meant a lot of fantasy stuff (swords and sorcery). I was into Dungeons & Dragons and I read stuff like Michael Moorcock, Fritz Lieber, and later Stephen Donaldson and Frank Herbert. Really, I would read anything, but sci-fi and fantasy opened the door for me and probably influenced my movie choices for a time, even though I quickly developed a rather eclectic range. I like to say now that I love good movies and good books, and that means there are no genre limitations. Great films can be found in any genre, you just have to be open to them. Sci-fi, drama, romance, foreign language, indie. The categories are meaningless. The same notion applies to music, books, theater, art, everything. You don’t have to like everything, but when it comes to film, I want to try to see as much of it as I can while I’m able.
Lisa: What is one of your favorite films and why?
TT: Blue Velvet is my all-time favorite film. I saw it at least four times during its opening weekend in 1986 and then went to my AP English class that Monday morning and asked my teacher if we could talk about it. I needed to crack it open and that felt like the right place to do it, and fortunately my teacher – who is still at the school – let us. We spent about 30 minutes on it and I then went back to see it multiple times the next couple of weekends. I’ve seen it over 30 times on the big screen over the years and it still reveals little secrets to me each time. Last year, I was able to take my oldest daughter to see a special 30th anniversary print of it in NYC. She was the same age I was when I saw it back in 1986, and it was one of those memories I will cherish forever. We walked the streets afterward, talking about the film and David Lynch, Twin Peaks and everything.
I realize that having a teacher indulge my curiosity and passion like that, was probably what set me on this path, and I hope that through my non-profit, I might be able to do the same for a few of the kids I see in WatchWriteNow programs.
The funny thing about Blue Velvet though is that it is not, technically speaking, the best film I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure what that is or how I could ever determine something like that. I just know that Blue Velvet continues to be my favorite, likely because of that story behind my lifelong experience with it.
Lisa: What is one of your most memorable interviews and why?
TT: Thanks to CityBeat, I’ve had the opportunity to conduct a few hundred interviews over the years and there are lots of fun stories in those exchanges. A favorite though is my chat with Martin Landau. He was helping to promote his appearance in City of Ember (2008) and the promotional reps set up a day and time for us to catch up. There was a mixup and I had to leave the house before I received his call. I got back home and there was a direct message on my office voicemail from Mr. Landau. As a film geek, I was already nervous about interviewing him – I mean, he’s had such a career. The man worked with Alfred Hitchcock, and he’s leaving a casual message on my voicemail. When we finally spoke to one another, I stumbled through my questions, trying not to geek out on him, and towards the end, I asked him about his process for finding his characters beyond what’s on the page. In reply, he did this little exercise where he walked me through the five boroughs of New York, creating a set of characters and voices right then and there. It was so much more than an auditory experience. I felt like I was in the same room with him, watching him transform into these people. When he finished, I tried to compliment him (and really thank him for sharing that with me) and he just chuckled and said that’s what he gets paid to do. It was brilliant, and I’ve got it save now in my iTunes library.
Lisa: When you look back at your life, what is one of your proudest accomplishments?
TT: It sounds weird to say this, but I think the life I’m still trying to live is the accomplishment that matters most. I haven’t come close to any kind of perfect example of the things I’ve talked about here, but I’m always trying, striving to live it. I said at the start that I’m still that geeky kid. If I can keep that up and let others (especially the kids I work with) see the effort, then I would be proud and satisfied with that.
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)
One of the many benefits of working on the ReelAbilities Film Festival for me are the incredible people it has given me the opportunity to get to know. I will be sharing some of their stories in my blog.
Caren Theuring is most definitely among them. Caren was a tireless volunteer with fantastic organization and communication skills, and relentless follow through. Among Caren’s tasks, she took on the huge responsibility of updating our ticketing site and of writing our film screening scripts for our emcees. This was no small feat, going back and forth with our host agencies and sponsors to get the names of panelists/speakers, information, and questions. She did it all always with such a positive attitude and she came through big time. During the Festival, Caren was there each day working at the box office.
I am so inspired by her. She was one very important part of our team who helped us build such an amazing event for the city to be proud.
Everyone has a reason for giving of their time to causes. One of Caren’s connection is her step son who lives at LADD’s Find-A-Way Apartments and has benefited from the opportunity to live independently in the community. It is for that reason that Caren and her husband, Jeff, do their giving to LADD.
Caren’s event planning career came later than most. She had gotten married, had three children and gotten divorced when she was still very young. She was doing administrative work but really wanted to further her education. Financially it was tough. She took out a loan and they did a lot of scrimping; and by the age of 40, she was enrolled in college. It was a part time job for a doctor during her college days that ultimately changed her path. She was offered a full time job after graduation that led to an executive director position (the only employee) of a newly founded professional association for radiologists. It was a role she had for eight years before leaving to figure out what she wanted to do next. Caren organized events locally, then accepted a job in San Francisco, and eventually came home to Cincinnati and worked for the Cincinnati Bar Association. She has been retired since 2012.
Lisa: What was something you enjoyed about being involved with ReelAbilities?
Caren: What was wonderful for me working on the Film Festival was that I felt part of something bigger than myself again and I didn’t worry about getting tired, I just did what I needed to do. That was cool. The accomplishment comes when everyone comes together and I did a small piece of it.
Lisa: You have such a generous spirit about you. Where do you think that comes from?
Caren: In my own life, I have been helped by many along the way. There have been times when I have been down and out and not knowing what would happen the next day. There was always someone who came by and supported me. People need to stop judging people by where they are or where they’ve been, and just hold out their hand to each other and say what can I do for you? I try to do that now for others. I’ve learned the hard way that giving too much free advice is not always helpful. I just try to be there for people.
Lisa: Who is someone who stands out for having made an impact on you?
Caren: There have been so many people. When I was first divorced, I was going to a Catholic church and in that particular Parish, the attitude of divorce was that it was someone’s fault. I was devastated and not getting support. I walked with my kids to the College Hill Presbyterian Church and the leaders at that time were amazing. They ended up offering me a job. They were such stable, loving people. They took me and my three kids and helped us through the next few years. I’ll never forget that.
Also, I have a friend, James, who has been her friend for more than 30 years. I met him when working as an admissions coordinator for a nursing home. He was a nursing assistant and he had been a medic in the air force. He is the most compassionate person you would ever want to meet. He always has a positive attitude toward life. James is a friend who will not let you doubt yourself, and he is believable. I draw from his sweetness. I’ve always been attracted to extraordinarily compassionate people. James had been a big brother to three boys that he raised, he is always there for people. One time I was personally painting the outside of my house and he helped me scrape and paint. And then the city came by and condemned my garage, so James found this guy and the three of them went to Home Depot to get supplies and redid the front of it.
Lisa: What is something to which you are looking forward?
Caren: I want to get back on my bicycle and ride it again. I was reminded by ReelAbilities that I can still keep up, I am not ready to sit in a chair. I also either want to go back to San Francisco, or take a trip that follows the follows the trip that Lewis & Clark took to the west coast.
Lisa: What is one of your favorite quotes and why?
Caren: I spend a lot of time thinking about the spirit of things and really like this quote by Johann Wolfgang Von Gotha. “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” To me it means you just have to do things. Don’t wait for an invitation to do what you need to do. If I had waited, I would never have done anything. Every journey starts with the first step. You can’t just sit around and say you will do things. This is what I tell my kids and others. Make the first step, then the second move, then the third move. I do believe there is something greater than ourselves that makes things happen when we start bringing the energy around to ourselves
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.