“To get them to socialize more, I said, ‘Let’s put on a play,’” said Kathy Brickmeier, a paraprofessional at Sanford H. Calhoun High School who works with special-education students.
The idea developed from there. By December 2017, a group of students had memorized lines from “A Christmas Carol” and had costumes ready. When they discovered that there was no availability in Calhoun’s auditorium, however, the concept shifted and blossomed into something bigger.
With help from her son, Vonn, Brickmeier purchased green screens, lights, microphones and more. Two and a half weeks later, the filming of “A Christmas Carol” began in a Calhoun conference room.
“They loved it,” Brickmeier said of the special-education students. “They felt like stars, and that’s what we really wanted.”
When the film was later shown on three large screens in the auditorium, the idea to continue the project was born, Brickmeier said. School officials, including Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District Superintendent John DeTommaso and Meadowbrook Alternative Program Principal Susan Ellinghaus, liked the suggestion. “Let’s keep this going,” Brickmeier recalled their saying. “We want more.”
Along with support from Calhoun Principal Nicole Hollings, “Express Yourself — Film Division” became the official after-school club for special-ed students, who include teenagers with autism and Down syndrome.
The group has now made a number of films. Its educational videos are shown around the school. “How to Become a Treasure Island Pirate” was filmed with students from Merrick Avenue Middle School, and “Annie — The True Story” was shown at Calhoun on May 20. The films typically involve around 30 students, Brickmeier said.
Creating the films, she explained, has many benefits — some unexpected. “It’s forgiving,” she explained, because it allows for as many takes as the students need for a smooth and edited product. Lines can also be read from the side of the camera while filming. The students are engaged from the initial stages of the project, when they “storyboard” the film and let their imaginations run wild.
Socially, the impact is even greater. Some students, Brickmeier said, would hardly speak or interact with other students throughout the day. Now, club meetings are full of laughter and conversation. In Calhoun’s halls, some of the stars have enjoyed a popularity boost, as other students offer them high fives as they pass.
And the students’ parents, Brickmeier added, go “nuts.” “They love seeing their kids being so happy,” she said.
“The potential is limitless,” said Beth Johnson, a Calhoun English teacher and a strong supporter of the group. While special-education students can have difficulty communicating, she said, the direct feedback of film “lessens anxiety and builds confidence.”
“They’re able to say, ‘I can do this,’” Johnson added. “It’s a valuable tool.”
“It’s a real sense of community,” said Ellinghaus, who sees the extended summer program firsthand in the Brookside building. “It takes summer school to a whole different level. Everyone gets to have a part. The cheers they hear are for each and every one of them.”
To take the concept further, the Brickmeiers formed Autotroph LLC, giving them the freedom to work on films with students outside the Bellmore-Merrick Central District. With Brickmeier writing and Vonn editing and working the equipment, the duo hope to take the idea far, they said.
“It’s more than socialization,” Vonn said. “It makes them feel like typical kids.”