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Film camp at UNF helps children with autism find a new voice

Children at the film camp

He may be actor John Travolta’s big brother, but that’s not Joey Travolta’s claim to fame. Since 1978, the older Travolta has made a name for himself in Hollywood as a singer, actor and director. For the past three years, Travolta has been devoting much of his time to working with children who have autism, teaching them about acting and filmmaking and producing short films to educate the public about autism. 


In June, Travolta and his production crew came to the University of North Florida to offer a two-week summer camp for 50 kids, including 30 who have some form of autism. The camp, sponsored by the Ponte Vedra-based HEAL (Healing Every Autistic Life) Foundation, was designed to teach children with autism how to overcome their disabilities by accepting challenges, participating in creative activities and collaborating with their peers.


HEAL Camp participants, ages 10 to 17, learned about acting, filming and editing, and also worked together with Travolta’s crew to produce a 20-minute documentary titled “Free to Be Me,” which will be shown nationwide.


 But the camp’s participants weren’t the only ones doing some learning at the camp. A group of 28 students from UNF’s Exceptional Student and Deaf Education Department also learned valuable lessons as they helped out at the camp. In the process of helping with registration, assisting in workshops and observing and interacting with the children, the students gained hands-on experience that likely will help guide them in their future careers.


Recent UNF graduate, ESE teacher and HEAL Camp volunteer coordinator Karin Hunt knows firsthand the value of UNF students having the chance to work with children with disabilities prior to graduation. “Being able to observe and work with children who are autistic is just incredible hands-on learning,” she said.  “You can learn from a book, but until you get in there and actually get to apply a theory and see it in practice can you truly understand it.”


The students were enrolled in Dr. Karen Patterson’s Classroom Management for Exceptional Learners class, and working at the camp was a mandatory part of the course. “By partnering to present this camp, we had an incredible opportunity to have a new direct application link to learning, so this was just perfect,” said Patterson, an assistant professor in UNF’s College of Education and Human Services. 


Deaf education senior Nicky Johnson said she was eager to participate in HEAL Camp and really enjoyed working with the kids. “I like that this is giving me experience outside of my degree and that it’s giving me a view of students outside of signing and deaf education,” Johnson said. 


Patterson is interested in finding out how working during the HEAL Camp might transform her students in terms of their willingness to work with children with disabilities, particularly children with autism. “Part of your job as an educator is knowing how to respond to children with various levels of disabilities. This experience will help my students make the connection between what research says about classroom management and the reality of practice by their interaction with children with autism in a way that a classroom lecture would never be able to do,” Patterson said. “My prediction is that after this experience they’ll be much more comfortable working with children with autism.”


Autism, which affects one in 150 children in the United States, is a brain development disorder that impairs social interaction and communication and usually causes restricted and repetitive behavior. Common signs of autism include: non-existent or poor eye contact, lack of imaginative play or imitation, social-skill deficits, preferring to be alone and difficulty speaking or expressing needs.


While it may seem that children exhibiting these symptoms or behaviors would be the last group you’d expect to work well together to write scripts, act out scenes and produce a real film to be shown nationwide, Travolta and his crew had a way of making it all work. Through hands-on activities focusing on improvisation, self-expression, spontaneity and collaboration, participants learned how to best utilize their untapped skills and talents to act, direct and create.


“I get jazzed just making films, and now I get doubly jazzed teaching kids how to make films and kids with special needs even more so because they’re so brilliant and they have so much to say,” said Travolta, who worked as a special education teacher before going into show business. “The thing that’s so great about it is they’re uninhibited. So, with acting and filmmaking you can be a little different.”


Travolta said participating in the film camp gives children with autism a voice that for most is being heard for the first time. One of those voices came from budding filmmaker Justin Fellin, a 16-year-old HEAL Camp participant who has a milder form of autism called Asperger Syndrome. Fellin said creating films helps him connect to the outside world.


 “It lets you communicate by showing examples on video and expressing your thoughts with audio and video,” he said. “It’s better than words. Actions speak louder than words, I always say.”


It was Karen Sadler’s idea to bring the camp to UNF. As the president and founder of Artlife Productions in Atlantic Beach, Sadler brought together Travolta and his crew, the HEAL Foundation and UNF to collaboratively offer the arts program. “This film camp is an incredible opportunity for both children on the autism spectrum and children who are not [autistic] to learn about filmmaking and create a finished film that will be shown all over the country,” Sadler said.  “Through the film, people will be able to see how the children really blossom within the two weeks through interactions and activities, and the ability of the arts to empower children to collaborate and come together.


Fellin and his fellow campers are looking forward to finally seeing the film they helped create, which will be released and distributed across the country in the fall. For more information about the film, contact the HEAL Foundation at (904) 285-5651 or visit