Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival
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.
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.
I am so fortunate that my work allows me the opportunity to get to know some incredible people who are so passionate about their cause. Kate Lopez is definitely among them. She and I met when I coordinated the marketing/public relations for the 2015 Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival organized by LADD, Inc. and we are working together again on the 2017 Festival. Kate is such a joy to be around. On a big event, with so many missing pieces, it is great to be working with someone like her who takes initiative and does what it takes to get the job done and done well. And with a smile on her face! For this Festival, Kate is an instrumental member of our team and the amazing thing is she is doing it while living temporarily with her family in Nashville, Tennessee. She commutes back and forth frequently.
Something I didn’t realize until recently about Kate is that her passion for this work stems from her own disability. It was because of Krohn’s Disease that, at the age of 14, she underwent a 9 ½ hour surgery to remove her large intestine. It was the procedure that altered her life forever, not because of the loss of her organ, but because the over pressurization of her muscles from having her legs in one position for that long caused something called compartment syndrome. In other words, she lost most of the muscles in her lower legs.
For a teenage girl who was the star of her volleyball team, and an overall competitive athlete, that sudden change was not easy…even more so at such a sensitive period in a girl’s life.
“It was definitely identity changing but I had a supportive family and friends who gave me the power to turn my life into something,” she told me. “I wear braces most of the time but people don’t know I have a disability. I can’t run and be as active as I want to be but I try to do as much as I can.”
Below are Kate’s answers to my questions.
Lisa: Because of your early experience, you are now professionally helping others as you were helped.
Kate: I was a sophomore in high school when I began volunteering at the Drake Center, where I also participated in physical therapy. My parents didn’t think I would be able to drive again but I learned how to drive with hand controls at Drake Hospital. That combination of Drake’s impact on other people as well as my own life really is what influenced my career choice. I am a therapist now with a specialty in teaching people to drive with adaptations, if it is safe to drive. I want people to see that there is a way to live fully with a disability.
Lisa: What is a life lesson you learned from your surgery?
Kate: I learned life is more fragile than you think when you are a teenager but also that it isn’t just your body that can be strong. Your mind is what is stronger. It made me fierce in making me want to be independent and to make as much of a difference in the world as I can. I also learned that life doesn’t have to be what you expect. I keep learning that with each patient and each interaction.
It has made me more thankful for the people I have around me. I feel like I am not as alone as I may think because of my support system and that makes me want to be that support system for others. I don’t let anything hold me back – I travel extensively, I scuba dive and mountain climb. I do physical things, I just do them in an adaptive way now.
Lisa: How did you become involved with ReelAbilities?
Kate: I went to the first Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival, then co-chaired the Veterans Committee of the 2015 Film Festival. The stories just meant so much to me. I don’t think I’d want to stray from them, as it is a connection with others who share my same passion. One of the best things that happened from my involvement was when I was talking to a friend who has a daughter with Spina Bifida. She shared how someone came up to her at ReelAbilities and said she doesn’t recognize anybody. That was the biggest compliment of the Festival because it demonstrated that we are reaching people who are not normally sought.
Lisa: You have define disability differently. Can you explain?
Kate: To me, I see a disability as something that would limit an aspect of life. An impairment, however, is something that is different and something is not working as well. Disability impacts your participating in life. Sometimes I am just in the impairment phase. One of the biggest things about wearing braces is finding shoes that I like but I’ve got it down to a science to find shoes I like and adapt them and make it work. I will not let the impairment get in the way.
Lisa: You have a seven year old son. What do you teach im about disabilities?
Kate: My son is around a lot of people with disabilities through my work, experience, and friends. I try to lead by example and don’t make difference as noticeable. He calls my braces my shoes. He just thinks some people have differences and others don’t. When it comes to kids struggling, I teach him to be more helpful and patient. When it comes to physical difference, I’m not sure he even notices. I just make it part of the package of the real world. We really are all the same on the inside and that is what matters most.
Absolutely, Kate, that IS what matters most!