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The Tribe Magazine: The Focus Is On Inclusion

Obtaining a higher education might be common, but finding work related to your area of study afterward can be a challenge. This makes vocational programs attractive, and Joey Travolta’s program for adults with developmental disabilities is especially unique.

Founder of Inclusion Films, Travolta is training film students and knocking on doors to help his graduates get hired.

“My main thing is creation of jobs,” said Travolta, whose younger brother is actor John Travolta.

Travolta’s first career was teaching special-needs students in his native New Jersey. But the job was short-lived because his paycheck often went back into the classroom. It wasn’t long before he followed his brother to Hollywood, acting, producing, directing and writing.

While helping his daughter during a film festival at Chaminade College Preparatory in West Hills, parents asked Travolta to teach a film class for special-needs students. The combination of his love for film and teaching was a perfect match.

His next step was the creation of a short-film summer camp, which is now in its eighth year and takes him to college campuses all over the country to work with children with special needs. The program is designed to develop self-esteem, confidence and creativity through acting, improvisation and digital filmmaking.

In 2007, he launched Inclusion Films in Burbank and has since opened a second location in Bakersfield. The 20-week practical film workshop for adults with developmental disabilities is designed to provide an entry-level working knowledge of film production. The program receives funding from the state-supported Regional Center system, which coordinates services for the developmentally disabled.

During each semester, the students work as a team with a film industry professional to create and produce two short films and a longer thesis film.

“I knew filmmaking was a good everyday tool and business,” said Travolta, whose wife, Wendy, the daughter of Jewish actor/comedian Dick Shawn, is also a teacher. “It’s a fun way to learn life skills.”

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Travolta speaks of filmmaking as a metaphor for life. He said students improve their social skills and learn to collaborate while working toward a common goal.

Seth Shulman, one of the many success stories to emerge from the workshop, is currently employed by Inclusion Films.

“Filmmaking is a lifestyle,” said Shulman, 27, of North Hollywood, who attended special-education classes from elementary to high school. “It’s something that you eat, sleep and breathe.”

After Shulman graduated high school, his father began searching for an internship program for him. The University of California, Los Angeles, directed the Shulmans to Travolta.

Travolta brought aboard Shulman, who studied filmmaking with Oscar-nominated director David Massey for two years during high school, as both a student and volunteer. After completing the program, Travolta hired him as a post-production supervisor.

Shulman supports the staff on a technical level and teaches students how to download and edit daily footage.

“I find what is more important is to teach storytelling, because filmmaking is more about the story than how to use the computer,” Shulman said.

Students come to the workshop with varying experience in film, and they learn from each other. At first, many students are unsure how they fit in.

“They are given a responsibility, and they are both intimidated by it and proud to have it,” Shulman said. “It seems to be something they are seldom given by anyone else up until that moment.”

Everyone learns at a different capacity and speed, so while the curriculum is consistent, the staff caters to the students’ needs.

“Some of the students have emotional needs, but we treat them as adults because that’s what they are, and that’s what we expect when they come into class in the morning,” Shulman said. “That’s how they will survive, and we want to help them grow.”

Students complete a project and take home the DVD to share their accomplishments with family. These things have helped create a sense of community and belonging.

“All I know is that kids with autism don’t fit in, and they need to be a part of something,” Travolta said.

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Kapital Entertainment’s Aaron Kaplan, former television head of the William Morris Agency, read an article last year about Travolta and picked up the phone to see how he could help. At that time he had eight ordered pilots and hired two of Travolta’s graduates.

“All the skills that we teach students are what they will utilize when looking for employment,” Shulman said.

Inclusion Films shooting the documentary “Through the Heart of Tango.”

Jonathan Cornejo, who was recently employed as a production assistant for Fox Studios on one of Kaplan’s pilots, is proof.

“I am enjoying what I am doing,” said Cornejo, 24. “I am getting used to the crew, and I am getting familiar with their daily operations. Every day is always about keeping up with what needs to get done. I think it’s a great way to network with staff, who are also in this business and also committed to getting a project done. I am grateful for that.”

Cornejo, who has an art degree from the University of California, Santa Cruz, but was unable to find work, completed three semesters at Inclusion Films. Afterward, Travolta hired him as a paid intern.

“What the workshop did was prepare me for this type of work,” Cornejo said. “It requires its students to take the work seriously.”

Students on average repeat the workshop two to three times. The curriculum is the same, but the projects are different, and students learn best from repetition, Travolta said.

“I think what we give them is a real purpose in their lives by giving them what sometimes seems like an enormous responsibility, and they are trying to hold onto it for dear life while quietly appreciating the privilege,” Shulman said.

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