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Despite social distancing, special ed students return to film

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Special education students in the Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District are once again appearing on the big screen.

The Extended School Year Special Education students at Merrick Avenue Middle School reenacted popular Dr. Seuss stories this summer thanks to Autotroph Films, a program created by Kathleen Brickmeier, a paraprofessional at Sanford H. Calhoun High School, and her son Vonn.

The idea for Autotroph began simply as a rendition of “A Christmas Carol” in 2017, which would have had the students socializing and having fun on the Calhoun auditorium stage. After lines were memorized and costumes were ready, the group discovered there would not be availability for the stage, however, leading it to blossom into a full-on film project.

Lights, cameras, green screens and microphones became regular sights for special-ed students both in the summer program and in the after-school club “Express Yourself — Film Division” at Calhoun, which include teenagers with autism and Down syndrome. The Brickmeiers have now produced several films, which usually involve around 30 students.

Tackling a film project this summer amid the Covid-19 pandemic presented a new challenge, however.

“When we learned of the district’s strict set of [safety] guidelines, we weren’t sure if we’d be able to do it,” Kathleen said. To film, students would have to social distance, allowing only one student on set at a time, and surfaces were sanitized after every scene. “But they needed this,” she added. “They needed this sense of normalcy.”

Costumes were also not allowed, Vonn said, but different Seuss-themed head gears were labeled for individual students. The final film is edited to appear as if the students are talking directly to each other, despite only one student being filmed at a time.

The rendition of “Seussical the Musical,” which is titled "Seuss!" and was made possible by grant funding acquired by Community Parent Center Director Wendy Tepfer, also had guest appearances from Meadowbrook Alternative Program Principal Susan Ellinghaus and Calhoun Principal Nicole Hollings.

Appearing in edited movies brings special benefits to the students, Kathleen said, including a sense of “pride and accomplishment.” “They love acting and they love seeing themselves,” she said, and it gives them the opportunity to socialize and learn from their peers.

“I love seeing how much the kids enjoy it,” said Vonn, who helps shoot and edit each of the Autotroph projects. “I love seeing how empowered they are.”

In total, the Brickmeier duo dedicated 92 hours to this summer’s film.