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Special ed students take a trip to Wonderland

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The conclusion of the Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District’s special education summer program was more than a film screening starring students and educators. It was an emotional farewell. “Alice In Wonderland” was the last project produced with the help of Meadowbrook Alternative Program Principal Susan Ellinghaus — one of the program’s biggest advocates. Ellinghaus will retire at the end of the 2019-20 school year.

“The kids are just amazing,” Ellinghaus, who oversees the summer program, said before the group’s rendition of the classic tale premiered. Throughout the screening in the Grand Avenue Middle School auditorium on Aug. 8, Ellinghaus’s love for the students was obvious. She frequently turned around in her seat to joke and dance with them, and they wore wide smiles.

Donning colorful costumes, more than a dozen students — including teenagers with autism and Down syndrome — and their teachers played parts in the film. With the help of a green screen and editing, each scene captured the dreamlike setting of “Wonderland.”

The idea for a special education film program came from Kathy Brickmeier, a paraprofessional at Calhoun High School, and her son, Vonn. What was originally planned as a stage play of “A Christmas Carol” transformed into performances in front of a camera.

“With live performances, there was a little bit more difficulty,” said Eric Arlin, the district’s director of special education, explaining that appearing on stage or memorizing lines was a challenge for some students. “But now, it’s something everyone looks forward to.”

After “Express Yourself – Film Division” became the official after-school film club for special ed students at Calhoun — with the Brickmeiers writing, producing, shooting and editing — the idea spread to the district’s summer program, with backing from Ellinghaus. “Wonderland” is the group’s third summer production.

“When the idea was in its infancy, we had a lot of support,” Kathy Brickmeier said, “but it was Susan who really fought for the program to grow and encompass more grade levels. The program would not be what it is today without her.

“Having students act in films promotes self-esteem, creativity and socialization — and it’s fun,” Brickmeier added. “To say that the program is cutting-edge is an understatement.”