Aaaaand Seen

Film camp puts neurodivergent students in the spotlight

September 06, 2022
Joey Travolta gives feedback during a film camp.
Joey Travolta, right, gives feedback to students pitching film ideas during an Inclusion Films camp session.

There are usually a handful of familiar steps when creating any movie. These steps can help keep a film production focused, keep the story clear, and make the final product successful. Understanding some of those steps is a perfect way to understand a film camp partnership between Solano County Office of Education (SCOE) and Inclusion Films.

The partnership, which utilized Touro University California for a recent camp and filming project, pairs students with special needs with professional filmmakers to learn the ins and outs of a complex but often wondrous and creative industry.

Normal World

Most films begin in the so-called normal world, where everyday life takes place as it usually would. For children on the autism spectrum or others living with developmental disabilities, our own “normal” world can sometimes be frightening, confusing, and exclusionary.

Because they are perceived as being different by many, students with neurodiversity can often get underestimated and overlooked. But in comes Inclusion Films with a call-to-adventure.


The Call-to-Adventure is where things first get rolling – like Luke Skywalker discovering a hidden message inside R2-D2.

Joey Travolta, who heads Inclusion Films and directs film camps like the one that came to Touro, combines his background in theater, film, music, and television (yes, you’ve heard that famous last name before), and his background as a special education teacher to reach out to these students and offer them an opportunity– not to make a movie, but to be seen and heard.

The genesis of these film camps started when Travolta helped a student with autism produce a documentary about what it was like to live with autism from the perspective of someone with autism.

Word spread through various sources and it led to great interest when the movie debuted at a film festival.

“We were expecting maybe 50, 100 people,” Travolta said. “500 people ended up showing up.”

It was then that he realized this could be something bigger and he could offer it to more students.

In pursuit of filmmaking and acting dreams, these students cross the threshold into what is sometimes called the Special World, a world of unknown adventure and challenges.

Crossing the Threshold

“Making a film is like being part of a family,” Travolta said. “A lot of these kids don’t get included in things.” The family environment of a film set and being around people working toward a common goal is key to the camp’s philosophy.

“It’s through the process of making a film that the education takes place,” Travolta said. “We stay at a certain level and we bring everybody up to that level … and these are skills that are applicable to any business you go into.”

Solano County Superintendent of Schools, Lisette Estrella-Henderson says that these students aren’t defined by whatever limitations they have but are forged by them. Dealing with trials and challenges is a daily occurrence for many of them.

“This (camp) gives them a chance to pursue their dreams,” Estrella-Henderson said. “They have their setbacks, as we all do, but they keep on going and pushing themselves.”

Dark Night of the Soul

For our movie heroes, the Dark Night of the Soul is when all hope seems lost, the challenges too insurmountable.

It’s hard to imagine a group of students in a camp that starts off each morning with smiles on every face and dancing to disco music would experience any level of darkness, but filmmaking is challenging for anyone.

Some of the students experienced hardship in the two-week span of the camp, but SCOE’s  staff were there to help pick up those pieces when the occasion arose.

“They really do go above and beyond,” Estrella-Henderson said of the SCOE  team. “They bring such a passion to their work and they are able to help lift these students up by starting in a place where they look at what’s possible and not what’s impossible.”

Gets the Gift

When a movie hero finally wins their biggest battle, they return with the gift or big prize, as when Dorothy returned with the witch’s broom.

For the Inclusion Films camp students, the experience is the prize, the opportunity is the gift.

But those aren’t the only gifts the camp affords.

Estrella-Henderson said of the students, “they have so many gifts to offer us and to the community. We know we can do great things to support our students on their journey if we are creative and innovative.”

La Kesha Lovett, a Program Manager with SCOE who helped coordinate the event, said, “this program means opportunity. It gives them a sense of excitement and accomplishment.” The students evolve so much in such a short span, she said.

“We’ve had participants that have shown significant growth just over the span of two weeks,” Lovett said.

That growth is a big part of what drives Travolta to continue this work.

“To see a kid that doesn’t talk all of a sudden talk, or to see a girl who stood on the side all week get out there and dance for the first time, it’s really amazing,” he said.

The Return

The last act for film heroes is to return to the normal world changed, improved.

There are five camp workers that were trained by the Bakersfield Film Making Program. Inclusion Films has hired one former camper as an employee that helps put on the camps all summer long, and currently have former campers at Bakersfield Inclusion Films as well as Futures Explored in Livermore that work for the production company on a regular basis. For other former campers, the support and experience they gained helped them advance into the professional world.

For some, maybe the benefit was simply learning how to hold their head higher and believe in the possible. Sometimes the movie magic that is created doesn’t just happen on the screen.

Estrella-Henderson summed it up best.

“These young people have real aspirations and hopes,” she said. “For many of them, this is a dream come true.”