The Arts: Special Needs Interest Comes to the Big Screen


The Arts: Special Needs Interest Comes to the Big Screen

by Mordechai Lightstone - Sherman Oaks, CA

February 22, 2009

(lubavitch.com) With the growing awareness and greater education about autism and other disorders that once condemned children thus afflicted to lives of isolation and loneliness, come bold attempts to push the envelope and uncover possibilities for creative achievements few imagined exist among this misunderstood and marginalized segment of the population.

On March 3, Normal Films and Chabad's Friendship Circle in Agoura Hills, will show The Premiere of  ARTS, A Film About Possibilities, Disabilities & The ARTS.

For film producer Keri Bowers, a single mother of an autistic child, the road to finding acceptance  was a long one. When her son Taylor Cross, now twenty, was diagnosed with high functioning autism at 6, she was forced to deal with, in her words "the death of the dream," her initial pain and anguish that her son would never be like other children.

Back then, teachers in public schools, ignorant about autism, refused to teach Taylor. Conventional therapy was basically designed to preoccupy or limit otherwise gifted individuals suffering from autism, Aspergers Syndrome, and other disorders associated with difficulties in social interaction.

The isolation from the mainstream community made Taylor sad, but it pained his mother and brother even more.

Instead of seeing her son tasked with menial labor such as cleaning or stocking shelves in a local supermarket, Bowers turned to other sources for inspiration.

A natural artist herself, she saw the creative arts as a medium for Taylor and others with autism spectrum disorder to channel their inwardly focused energies to the world at large in a non-threatening fashion.Bowers soon became an advocate for developmentally disabled children and their families.

In ARTS, Bowers tells the story of her own heart, of artists whose disabilities would have precluded them from careers in mainstream society were it not for the growing awareness and education of the specialness of these people, a cause, Keri would soon learn, that was shared passionately by Chabad's Friendship Circle. 

For Keri, the film is the product of years teaching about special-needs children. In May 2006, she came out with her debut film, Normal People Scare Me, which she worked on together with Taylor, and actor and musician Joey Travolta, exploring autism through personal interviews with  65 individuals affected by the disorder.

When the film was screened at a Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, Bowers, who is not Jewish herself, met up with Jewish advocacy groups for special needs children. She soon found herself speaking at various events and forums for Jewish communities,  among them a New Jersey chapter of the Friendship Circle, a wildly popular national outreach program developed by Chabad to benefit special needs childrens and their families through local teenage volunteers.

Returning home in Sherman Oaks, California, Bowers was introduced to Rabbi Eli Laber, who, along with his wife Rachel, are responsible for the Conejo Valley chapter of The Friendship Circle. From there a partnership which Bowers dubs "a love affair of mutual interests" blossomed.

Rabbi Laber arranged for a private screening of Normal People Scare Me. It sold out twice over.

Following the success of Normal People, Bowers continued her advocacy, spearheading a second film project, The Sandwich Kid, which tells the story of her other son Jace, and that of the siblings to the over 650 million special-needs children worldwide.

The special screening for ARTS will also tie in with The Friendship Circle's fourth annual "Friendship Walk" a fund raising event, Sunday, March 29th. Bowers and Rabbi Laber expects it will  further raise awareness and support for programs like Friendship Circle. In the Conejo Valley, the program pairs special needs children from 90 families with 230 volunteers.

Friendship Circle was founded in 1995 by Bassie Shemtov, a young Chabad representative in Detroit, Michigan. Today, Chabad centers in 74 locations worldwide include Friendship Circle programs in their communities. Collectively, those numbers add up to 11,000 teenage volunteers who bond with 4,500 special-needs children and their families.

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