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)
When I was hired by the Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival (organized by Living Arrangements for the Developmentally Disabled and presented by Macy’s) late summer of 2014, much of Greater Cincinnati had never heard of it; and few people who I reached out to had any idea of the scope of the event or its value to our community – including me, admittedly. Even those who worked for the nonprofit host agencies did not realize the magnitude of what was to unfold.
People experiencing a disability or cognitive, genetic, physical and behavioral difference are often misunderstood. They are portrayed in photos and sometimes news stories as ‘less than’ normal or super human just by virtue of their own being. They are often not included, or at least not to the extent that they are people first with interests, hopes, dreams, talents, and even bad days, just like everybody else. Yet ‘they’ are about 20% of our population. And ‘they’ are the only minority population in which all people will be counted among them at some point in their lives.
The overarching goal of LADD and ReelAbilities in hiring me to serve as the director of public relations and communications was for me to support the unrelenting drive of determined volunteers and staff organizing the events by being a catalyst for change – to bring the community together in support of not only an event but a cause so powerful as to have impact on each and every one of us in a direct or indirect way. I wanted to get people in this region talking to each other and realizing that inclusion and togetherness is not about ‘other people’, it is about themselves and each other. I wanted to get people excited about ReelAbilities as a world class film festival, and come out to support and learn from it. The challenge was to do all of this with a very limited budget including for my own time, but I was up for the challenge as the cause is something very important to me.
For eight days beginning February 27, Greater Cincinnati was transformed into a film screening mecca with out-of-town celebrities helping Cincinnati explore our differences, and our shared humanity. Internationally acclaimed photographer Rick Guidotti; Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein; Project Runway fan favorite Justin LeBlanc; Cincinnati icons Ted Kremer, Drew Lachey, Nick and Nina Clooney, Dave Parker and Ken Anderson; former snowboarding champion Kevin Pearce; and actors Danny Woodburn, Kurt Yaeger, Daryl ‘Chill’ Mitchell, John Lawson, David DeSanctis (from Where Hope Grows), Jesus Sanchez-Velez (from Stand Clear of the Closing Doors); veterans SSG Travis Mills and Michael Schlitz; and Steve Wampler, who climbed El Capitan, where just some of the big name personalities who came to Cincinnati to be part of ReelAbilities. Academy Award Winning Actress Marlee Matlin was our keynote speaker for our Kick Off Celebration Luncheon that hosted hundreds.
The films of ReelAbilities were selected from some 500 plus submitted for jurying, many of them with wide international acclaim and awards to their name. Their common thread was that they celebrated the lives and stories of people experiencing disability. Many were shown with the film actors/subjects as special guests; and all screenings included a thought provoking discussion at the end.
I saw and still do see ReelAbilities as an opportunity to open dialogue and doors about topics that, for the most part, have been barricaded from our conversations – or at least in productive ways out of discomfort or lack of interest or personal connection.
There were so many strategies that I put into place (with help from wonderful volunteers and staff) to reach out to our community and pull people in through their personal stories and connections – their differences, and their shared humanity. And, in the end, it all came together to create a community that supported the film festival beyond our wildest dreams in classrooms, board rooms, businesses, entertainment venues, stores, nonprofits, and universities. Nearly 4500 people attended our events, with numerous film screenings having sold out.
The honest questions that were asked, the open answers that were shared, and the comments afterward from film goers told all of us that others grew from it too with expanded and even new perspectives.
There were so many people whose words and actions touched me in meaningful ways that it has been difficult to find the right words to capture its impact on me.
There was Kevin Pearce who took us into his life and shared his family tradition with all of us, ringing a Tibetan singing bowl to facilitate awareness of the moment – even at our formal Mingle with the Stars Gala. And, speaking of the Gala, anytime you have comedian actors in a room together and give them center stage to improvise, laughter is bound to follow. That was the genius idea (and somewhat brave too) of Festival Managing Director Susan Brownknight.
I remember the first time I met Richard Bernstein. He was so filled with genuine flattery of everyone he met. That, I came to learn quickly, is just his way. It is a gift and something I came to treasure about being around him.
We brought our VIPs to the Seacrest Studios at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center where kids could interact with them. It is there where I saw the infectious laughter of Danny Woodburn, Daryl ‘Chill’ Mitchell and John Lawson banter between each other; and again when Steve and Elizabeth Wampler sat side-by-side. Steve shared this message with hospital patients, “Don’t let anyone tell you, no, you can’t do that. Anything is possible.”
Justin LeBlanc promoted literacy by reading a book about inclusion to an entire gymnasium filled with school children; promoted creativity by helping students who are deaf to design and show fashions; and promoted abilities by speaking about his own personal story. Young students at Ohio Valley Voices also got to ask Justin lots of questions – like ‘When is your birthday?’, ‘What is your favorite color?’ and ‘Do you have a dog?’
While here, SSG Travis Mills , one of five surviving quadruple amputee veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, met for the very first time a critical care doctor who provided medical care after his 2012 injury during his air care transport from Kandahar to Bagram. Together we took them to tour UC Health’s Center for Sustainment of Trauma and Readiness or C-STARS where Major Dr. Laurae Rettig was trained. I’ll always remember Travis’ wicked sense of humor…and his rotating hand that he can make go round and round and round.
I always welcome Rick Guidotti’s bear hug. The lens from which he sees the world has opened eye across the globe to see the gift of each individual and the beauty in difference.
I treasured all of the time I got to spend with my friends, Danny Woodburn, and his wife, Amy Buchwald. They are two incredible people who I look up to as examples of role models when it comes to integrity and perseverance. Equaled with their talent is their fearlessness when it comes to standing up for what they believe in.
ReelAbilities gave me the opportunity to get to know and admire John Lawson, an encourager and leader, with a gift for bringing out the best in others.
Then there is the Festival Chair Kathleen Cail, Co-Chairs Sara Bitter and Kara Ayers; Managing Director Susan Brownknight; staff team – Jesse, Hannah, Molly, and Jen; and all of the committee volunteers for whom I have so much respect. They are such an awesome group of passionate, hard working, and dedicated people without whom this would not have been possible.
The Festival was about people coming together, standing up for and embracing eachother. It was about opening eyes and minds to see beyond people’s differences to what we all share – our humanity. I celebrate LADD for having the vision, foresight, courage and strength to create and organize such a community changing event. I am especially in awe of Susan Brownknight as our leader.
In her luncheon speech, Marlee Matlin looked out into the audience and shared, “We need to keep opening doors when people want them shut. We need to shine the light on ignorance when people want to keep us in the dark. And we need to make noise when they want to keep us quiet. But most of all, we need to keep on being ourselves, follow your heart and in the end accommodation will happen. We are the ones who can make it happen.”
Yes, Marlee, you are right we are. Let’s make our voices be heard!