If you’re still crying about missing Sundance, there’s a much better film festival right in Houston. In fact, it’s not just a film festival but a much larger, national movement. ReelAbilities: Houston Film & Art Festival is a free, city-wide event that celebrates the lives, stories, and talents of people with disabilities. The festival takes place from February 14-18 at Edwards Greenway Grand Palace Stadium 24 and is completely free, making it easy for people like me and you to help promote inclusion and get cultured at the same time.
I was really amazed when I heard of ReelAbilities—it’s an organization that’s was off of my radar until I began working in Houston. To explain this spurred excitement, I have to tell you a little family history—and then some. In high school, I become incredibly involved in Best Buddies, an organization that creates friendships between students and their developmentally disabled peers. The club was a go-to for people who sought community service hours, but I wasn’t there for a gold star. I really, truly loved the friends I made and looked forward to spending lunch together, getting weekly phone calls, and attending the annual dance. I still keep in touch with my buddy Adriana after 11 years of being friends, and continue to get phone calls from additional buddies I made along the way. These calls are just about the best feeling I could ever describe, it’s right in line with the feelings my family has for Jaeden.
If you know me on a deeper level outside of Cup of Charisma, you’ll know that my nephew Jaeden is all I talk about. I have an Instagram filled with photos of quirky faces, daily grumblings (he doesn’t speak but is VERY vocal when it comes to play time), and kisses from my sweet 8-year-old nephew who happens to have Down Syndrome. I remember the day he was born and when the doctors told my family—everyone was saddened and a bit scared for his well-being…everyone except me. I had already seen the light that working with students in Best Buddies had shed on my life and knew the overarching happiness children with disabilities could share with the rest of us who have been hardened by the world. I assured my family that Jaeden would grow up to lead an incredible life filled with opportunity—after all, he had a family who loved him unconditionally from the moment he arrived. Surely enough, Jaeden was the cheer we all didn’t know we needed in the first place.
There’s never a day where Jaeden doesn’t make us smile. He is selfless, light-hearted and looks at the world the way that he knows how to. Some may call Jaeden’s view youthful, idyllic, a permanent use of rose-colored lenses; the truth is that we all could benefit from looking at the world through his eyes. The video below is a short 2-minute documentary of Jaeden’s life I filmed for a past project of mine, Twenty One Smiles. As my brother says, “The skills that he lacks he can learn in a classroom, but the skills he possesses can’t be taught.” (Disclaimer: This video is a MAJOR tear-jerker, so prepare for fuzzy warm feelings.)
Now that you know why promoting inclusion and equality among the developmentally and physically disabled is so important to me, here’s how you can join me at ReelAbilities Houston. For those who love an in-person dose of inspiration, UP Abilities is the perfect way to start your ReelAbilities experience. I’ll be at Houston Community College on Feb. 11 to listen to thought leaders discussing diversity and inclusion. The speakers include Winter X Games Snowboarder Kevin Pearce (Topic: Surviving and Thriving: Life after the Crash), British Psychology Researcher Eleanor Longden (Topic: Learning from the Voices in My Head) and America’s Got Talent finalist Drew Lynch (Topic: Embrace Life Event When it Throws You a Curveball). (Get your free tickets here and tweet me at @Jillian_Writes so we can meet!)
The film festival, starting Feb. 14, will include a total of 15 full-length, shorts, and international films at Edwards Greenway Grand Palace location, outreach to schools and at the George Bush International Airport. Challenges of living with a genetic condition that causes developmental differences and the impact these challenges have on family dynamics are explored in Coaching Colburn. A father/son bonding theme is presented in the French film, The Finishers, during an Ironman® triathlon. One Year Later illuminates the meaning of “strength” with a rock-climber, now paralyzed from the waste-down, who earns a badge of resilience thanks to the advance in adaptive sports. These movies sound like the perfect dose of heartening awareness.
Here’s the full schedule:
Sunday, Feb. 14 at 6 p.m.
*Opening Night: Keep the Change and Mimi and Dona
Tuesday, Feb. 16
Wednesday, Feb. 17
Thursday, Feb. 18
As if a TED Talk-esque discussion and cinematic experience aren’t enough, there’s also the art component. Houston’s Celebration Company, a group of 20 adults with disabilities who create art as an expressive outlet, will have work displayed at the Nicole Longnecker Gallery until Feb. 20.
True confession: I’ve had a goofy smile on my face the entire time it took me to write this post. Maybe it’s because I know Jaeden is 1,000 miles away, waking up to eat his Cheerios and prance around with his Super Grover stuffed animal with the most flagrant sense of happiness attainable. It could be because I might get a text from Adriana telling me that to have a happy day. Maybe I’m just REALLY excited to be connected to something that brings me so joy that I wish I could bottle up and share with you. There’s inspiration to be spread, knowledge to be shared, and feelings to be felt. I hope you visit ReelAbilities, if even for a day, and open your mind to a new way of facing challenges.