JCC film festival highlights special needs

JCC film festival highlights special needs

In Tenafly, ReelAbilities focuses on people's experiences, accomplishments

Inching to the mountain top in “Wampler’s Ascent.”

From the time she first came on board as director of the Guttenberg Center for Special Services at the Kaplan JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly five years ago, Shelley Levy knew she wanted her agency to host the ReelAbilities film festival.

Last year, after talking to the director of the program and being invited to the Manhattan JCC for the opening night screening of the films, “I began to have conversations about our becoming a venue for this festival,” she said.

Those conversations paid off, and this year, although the films will be shown in other places throughout the state, “we are the only northern New Jersey venue for the festival,” she said.

The movies, which will be presented at the Tenafly JCC on March 13, 14, and 17, “[are] dedicated to promoting awareness and appreciation for the lives, stories, and accomplishments of people with disabilities,” according to the ReelAbilities NY Disabilities Film Festival’s website.

Even more, Levy said, the three-evening festival, founded in 2007 and highlighting award-winning feature films and shorts by and about people with disabilities, is intended for all audiences.

“It’s about bringing the community together to explore, discuss, and celebrate the diversity of shared human experience,” she said. “And because [special services] is a very integral part of what happens here, it’s another way for us to actualize our mission statement and really heighten awareness, bringing people here who may not have been here before. These high-quality films are intended for the general community. It’s just that they happen to focus on different ability groups.”

Levy, who has already seen trailers of each of the films to be shown at the festival, called it “an amazing event. We’re very excited about this,” she said, noting that opening night will feature a keynote address by behavior analyst and psychologist Bridget A. Taylor, who has helped develop autism treatment programs in Italy, Canada, France, Australia, and Kosovo.

It will also include a solo performance by Jodi DiPiazza, an 11-year-old pianist who performed with Katy Perry at Night of Too Many Stars. There also will be post-screening discussions. On the final night of the festival, Steve Wampler, who has cerebral palsy, and his family will join in a post-screening discussion of “Wampler’s Ascent,” which chronicles Steve’s ascent of El Capitain mountain in Yosemite National Park.

According to festival organizers, ReelAbilities was initiated in New York in 2007 in the Jewish community and has expanded into an international film festival through partnerships with educational, cultural, and advocacy organizations.

Press statements for the fifth annual festival point out that “the films seek to present universal stories about the human life experience that anyone from anywhere who has struggled to meet life’s challenges can relate to. They also provide a meaningful platform for bringing communities together to discuss the themes presented in the films. The mission is to create an inclusive community.”

“All of these incredible films are a celebration of the life we all share, and each person’s story is a glimpse into how people throughout the world see themselves,” Levy said. “Each and every one of these films is a testament to personal perseverance, and we are eager to share these stories with our community.”

Levy said that the JCC offers dozens of special needs programs for members of all ages. Providing people “from birth through adulthood a range of services, programs, classes, camps, and social groups,” the department also is making great advances in the area of technology.

“Through collaboration with the Rubin Run, we purchased an iPad lab with 10 iPads and charging stations,” Levy said.

“We generally don’t turn anyone away,” she added, noting that she also serves in an advisory capacity to other departments where children with special needs may be in inclusive settings requiring support services.

Levy said that most of her programs are “supplemental,” with the exception of the day program. She pointed out that every head teacher must have a minimum of 10 years experience working with this population – whether in schools, special education programs, or in other places – and that in addition to trained staff, the department counts on the help of many volunteers.

As an adjunct college teacher, she said, she has encouraged many of her students, especially those studying psychology, education, or sociology, “to have the opportunity to participate in this.”

There is also “an amazing core of teen volunteers. Some come through their mitzvah project,” she said, explaining that “many come and never leave,” returning to help even when they graduate.

To help train these volunteers, Levy offers a course, in collaboration with the teen department, called Project CARES, teaching the teens to babysit for children with special needs.

“When they want to volunteer, we encourage them to take that class,” she said. “It’s a win/win experience. They get the training and we get the help until they go to college, or even to graduate school.”

All told, Levy said, the JCC’s special services department has more than 70 program offerings.

“We’re working hard on changing the perception of who people with disabilities are, promoting awareness and appreciation,” she said, telling other people to “look at them as people first and see all the wonderful things they bring to the JCC and to our lives.”

Films in the three-evening event can be attended individually or as a series. The cost for each screening night is $5; it is free for students with school ID. All films are captioned or subtitled, and all venues are wheelchair accessible. For more information and tickets, call Levy at (201) 408.1489.

For more information on ReelAbilities, go to www.reelabilities.org/NewJersey.

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