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!
It has become an annual tradition around New Year’s when my mom reminds me of how much we need to appreciate every minute of every day because time doesn’t stand still. When the clock struck midnight last Wednesday, one more year was behind us, never to be gotten back again. The 2014 hourglass expired.
But not before permanently etching memories into the crevices of my brain. These are the reflections that give me pause on New Year’s. What has 2014 taught me about life and living; and about being a better person, friend, teacher and co-worker? How will I use these lessons to inspire myself and those around me to be better, stronger and more connected?
The Gifts of 2014
It was in 2014 when I became part of a team whose shared purpose is inspiring others to look beyond differences to appreciate each other’s unique gifts that collectively strengthen us all. Through the Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival organized by LADD, Inc., I have met so many people who share my passion for building a community where differences are celebrated and everyone is included.
ReelAbilities gave me the opportunity to get to know world renowned photographer Rick Guidotti. I will always remember how, within minutes of our meeting, I felt as if we were lifelong friends. That is one of Rick’s incredible gifts. It is how he is able to share the beautiful humanity in those with differences, in all of us actually. Through his images, his words and his heart, Rick inspires us to change how we see the world and how we see each other. Thank you to Rick for all that you are and all that you do.
There are so many powerful messages to be told and shared through the ReelAbilities Film Festival. I hope you will make plans on joining us.
It was in 2014 when our region – and the nation – was introduced to a valiant warrior, who, in a few short months taught us about courage and vision and purpose. By now you have probably heard the story of Lauren Hill. You probably even feel as though you know her personally. I have no doubt that her indomitable spirit has impacted you, strengthened that place deep in your soul where hope grows.
Lauren was less than two months into her 18th year when an MRI revealed one of the most insidious forms of cancers with tentacles weaving through her nerves. When she took to the court of her first NCAA college basketball game, it was before an unprecedented sellout crowd of 10,000+. They were her cheerleaders. She was their teacher. She was…is…a teacher to all of us.
Her quote was the headline of a USA Today story, “I want people to know, I will never give up.” Lauren challenged us and challenged herself. Her goal was to raise $1 M for The Cure Starts Now Foundation by the end of the year. With media support and an army of fighters in schools, congregations, businesses, and communities here and nationwide, she met that goal. She looked cancer in the face and said, ‘you have not won.’
None of us know when Lauren’s journey here on earth will end but her legacy will live forever in all of us who have grown from her strength.
What have these 2014 lessons taught me?
Wow, there is so much. Truly, life can be so short. We never know from day to day what tomorrow will bring yet we spend so much time worrying about things that will be insignificant in a year. We stress over deadlines, mistakes, and what if’s. We go from place to place without noticing the beauty around us or the person having a bad day. We don’t stop to ask how we can help. We forget to smile at passers-by. We say we will reach out later to that friend we have lost touch with. We overlook letting those around us – our co-workers, family and neighbors – know we appreciate them. We let our fear of failure keep us from pursuing our dreams.
Time goes by too quickly to take it for granted. In 2015, I am going to pay more attention to smiling at strangers and noticing the scenery around me. I am going to reach out more to people in my life and remind them that they are valued and appreciated. I am going to do more to help others. I am going to make mistakes, and learn from them. I am going to pursue my passions.
What lessons will you carry forward in the new year?
A little over a month ago I wrote about the Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival organized by LADD, a nonprofit organization for whom I am now doing public relations, bringing world renowned photographer Rick Guidotti here to share his – and ReelAbilities’ – message that it is our differences that give individual’s their own unique beauty.
Through the ReelAbilities Education Outreach Team, Rick spoke with hundreds of area high schools. And already, something truly outstanding has occurred to spread impact. Milford High School Photography Teacher Janelle Schunk came up with an idea for a project pairing students with and without disabilities to create an exhibition called Different Lives Same Beauty.
Milford’s Photography I class worked with students in the school’s multiple disabilities unit to learn about each other’s differences AND similarities. In addition to create beautiful portraits, building relationships and friendships were also goals.
“I was nervous when I first met John, who is nonverbal. I wondered how I was going to make him smile. We learned he likes beads and were able to use beads to get him to smile and look at the camera,” student Leah Breuer shared in a blog post on the Milford Schools site. “Before I had never really talked to the kids in the MD unit, but after this project I know all of their names and I say hi in the hallways.”
What is really awesome about this is the lasting impact this project will have as a foundation for future good friends, neighbors, citizens, employers and employees.
Please click to see WLWT coverage.
Speaking about success in the classroom
What is inclusion and why is it important in the positive growth for all children? Sara Bitter, ReelAbilities Education Outreach Team chair, was interviewed recently by Jason’s Connection about the impact of ReelAbilities’ work in area schools. Please click here to read her interview.
She shared how inspiration for working with ReelAbilities came from her son who has a disability. When he entered kindergarten, she gave a presentation to his class. I think the first thing the presentation did was, it helped the kids understand some of the challenges of his disability. More importantly though, it helped them to see (through real pictures) all of his many capabilities, she told Jason’s Connection.
“…we shouldn’t assume that because someone has a disability, he or she can’t have big achievements. Can’t have great life experiences. Or can’t get a job, have a family or have a successful life. Modifications and accommodations throughout a person’s education will help them be able to participate in almost every academic and extracurricular activity so they can grow into productive self-determined adults. It just takes an ability to think outside of the box and make this happen.
Please click here to learn more about the Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival Outreach Program.
Last week, I had an incredible, rare opportunity through my public relations work for the Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival organized by LADD to meet and get to know someone whose vision, drive and passion is singlehandedly changing the way we see the world. The way we see each other.
Rick Guidotti was one of the most sought after fashion photographers. He traveled to exotic locations, always first class; and had studios in Milan, Paris and New York. Through his lens, he captured the eloquence of the world’s most elite super models for Revlon, Loreal, Marie Claire and Elle. But, through all of his success, something was missing.
Until that fateful day when Rick spotted a 12 year old girl with long, flowing white hair and pale skin waiting for a bus, his career had been focused on showcasing an industry’s standard on what beauty should look like. The problem, he realized, was that there was a real dichotomy between what his clients dictated he saw and what his eyes and heart saw as descriptors for that same label.
The last fifteen years have seen Rick’s lens refocus. On any given day he could be anywhere across the globe whether in Africa, Switzerland, Tanzania, San Diego, New York…or Cincinnati capturing the essence of young and old whose only similarity is the fact that they have a genetic, physical, or behavioral condition. He is the founder and director of Positive Exposure, an innovative arts, education and advocacy organization that provides new opportunities for individuals to see people with differences as human beings first.
Rick is on a mission to use his talents to put the humanity into medicine, schools, workplaces, and communities through the words and images of people who have diagnoses. His goal for his art and his talks is for audiences to leave with a new perspective on those around them. He wants them to them to see the life, energy and beauty in ALL people no matter their differences.
While here in Cincinnati Rick spoke to hundreds of students at area schools and to an audience at a free talk at Obscura downtown. At every event I saw magic happen before my eyes. Young people who deal with typical issues of peer and academic pressure applauded loudly. The bleachers in the gymnasium at Summit Country Day School rocked as row after row of youth stood on their feet.
Last Friday the Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival had Rick photograph local families that he will use to create an exhibit for the Festival, which will be February 27 to March 7, 2015. If you missed any of the media coverage, here are some links.
It was truly a week that left a lasting impact on me. And it made one thing a lot more clear…the world needs many more Rick Guidotti’s.
It is not too late to see Rick’s art. His #FotoFocus2014 exhibit will be on display at the Art Academy through October.
Over the past few months, it has been such a great experience for me to work with the Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival. Their work is truly about impacting perspectives and impacting lives, inspiring people to see the greatness in everyone. Next week will be one example of how they are accomplishing that….
Internationally acclaimed fashion photographer Rick Guidotti has photographed many of the world’s most elite super models; however, it is the story of focusing his lens on the beauty of those who have genetic, physical, and behavioral differences that has inspired millions around the globe to reinterpret the meaning of beauty. Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival is bringing him to Cincinnati September 23 to 26 to share his message with schools and the greater community through a series of events…and will also photograph Cincinnati families who have a member with a disability for an exhibition during the 2015 Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival. The events are FREE and open to the public thanks to the generosity of local sponsors the Edwards Foundation, managed by Crew Capital and Contemporary Cabinetry East.
Rick Guidotti – Artist Talk and Reception
Thursday, September 25
7:00 pm to 9:00 pm
Obscura Cincinnati lounge (625 Walnut Street, 45202)
Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival presents Rick Guidotti’s Positive Exposure, The Spirit of Difference FotoFocus exhibition – opening night reception
Friday, September 26
5:00 to 7:00 pm
Art Academy of Cincinnati Convergys Gallery (1212 Jackson Street, 45202)
Positive Exposure, The Spirit of Difference FotoFocus Exhibition
Sep. 26, 2014 – Oct. 24, 2014
Mon–Fri: 9 am–9 pm | Sat–Sun: 9 am–5 pm
Art Academy of Cincinnati Convergys Gallery (1212 Jackson Street, 45202)
The Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival organized by LADD, Inc. and presented by Macy’s is our region’s largest film festival that unites our community around world-class films and celebrities who explore and experience disability. It will be held February 27 to March 7, 2015. Guidotti’s visit is part of 2014 ReelPrograms-a series of events leading up to the Festival to connect people through shared humanity.
More about Rick Guidotti
Rick has spent the past 15 years working with advocacy/non-governmental organizations around the world, medical schools, universities and other educational institutions to inspire a sea-change in societal attitudes towards people living with differences. His work has been published in such diverse newspapers, magazines and journals as Elle, GQ, People, The American Journal of Medical Genetics, The Lancet, Spirituality and Health, The Washington Post, Atlantic Monthly and Life Magazine.
He is the founder and director of Positive Exposure, an innovative arts, education and advocacy organization working with people who have genetic, physical and behavioral conditions of all ages. Positive Exposure provides new opportunities for individuals to see people with differences as human beings first.
“As an artist what I try to do with every image is to reflect back at the viewer their best qualities. So now you have a new tool, when you see someone who has a difference you don’t stare or look away—there’s a steadying of the gaze and you see beauty, you see life and energy and then you see around that difference to what we share, which is humanity, that’s what we all have,” he told Houston Style Magazine.
Living Arrangements for the Developmentally Disabled was founded 40 years ago by families who dreamed of a better life for their children who had developmental disabilities. Now, LADD serves nearly 500 adults with developmental disabilities in Hamilton County with housing, teaching life skills, employment and day programs. Our mission is to integrate people we serve into our community and support adults with disabilities in achieving their dreams. Go to: www.laddinc.org for more information.