By Nicole Di Donato
A group of fourth-year RTA media production students highlight the difficulties young people with additional needs face in their thesis film, Why She Calls Me Cheryl.
The documentary follows the personal story of a mother, caregiver and advocate, Cheryl Boudreau, and her 15-year-old daughter with severe special-needs, Hailey.
Courtney Dobbins, the director and co-producer of the film and Hailey’s older sister, decided to use her passion for documentary filmmaking to create more awareness about the lack of options available for individuals with additional needs trying to attain workplace training, skills and employment after leaving high school.
“I was at home recently in the summer and we were discussing Hailey’s future and the topic of day programs came up, which is kind of like a camp,” said Dobbins. “And so we got into this huge discussion about how we want more for Hailey, how we feel that she is capable of so much more and want to set her up for success.”
In the Ontario school system, it is strongly suggested that people with additional needs stay in high school for seven years and graduate at the age of 21. The documentary was originally called Seven to comment on how these individuals are given little options or guidance after seven years of high school. However, the group decided to take the film in a different direction by focusing on one specific family and their personal story.
“What we’re being very conscious of is making sure that the story and the documentary comes across as something that you can [relate to],” said Zach Marcovici, the executive producer. “That’s why we’re telling a more personal story rather than [taking] more of a journalistic approach.”
The documentary explores Heritage Hall in Shelburne, N.S. Heritage Hall was founded by Hailey’s grandmother, Marion Boudreau, and is described as a ‘viable community business,’ that allows individuals with additional needs to hone in on the skills they have while learning new transferable workplace skills. Cheryl explores Heritage Hall as a suitable option for Hailey.
“The idea is that hopefully by the time they go through this place, they can find jobs within the community,” said Andrea Horodyski, the marketing and communications manager. “It’s like that stepping stone that’s kind of missing from society right now after school to the workplace for these individuals.”
When the family returns to their home in the GTA, the film explores how few resources there are compared to what is in Shelburne and how they are becoming even more limited due to workshop models under a lot of criticism and being shut down.
One of the main ways the group hopes to change people’s thinking about these issues is by emphasizing that everyone has needs that must be accommodated and that we are all a part of the same community.
“Something that we’ve learned is, we don’t use ‘disability’ anymore or ‘special needs,’ we’ve been saying ‘additional needs.’ We met this expert who basically said to us, ‘It’s a spectrum, we all have needs and it’s just additional needs, at any point in our life anything can happen.’ So, it’s a spectrum of the same population of people, it is not us and them,” said Dobbins.
“While making this documentary we all found our personal connections to it,” said Horodyski. “But you realize how immersed this problem is in society and what really upsets me is [that] everyone is attached to it somehow but it just goes unspoken of so much, which is a huge problem.”
“It’s not you today, it’s not your family today, but it could be tomorrow,” said Horodyski.
Marion Boudreau, who dedicated her whole life to creating and working at Heritage Hall, now identifies as someone with additional needs. She suffered from a stroke and lost her ability to talk.
Although the documentary was created for a school project, the group members hope to continue spreading awareness about these issues once the project is officially done.
“[This experience] has been amazing and painful all at the same time,” said Dobbins. “For me, it’s truly never been a project, it’s my family and it’s our life and so it’s been hard really exploring the problems that we’re facing.”
Why She Calls Me Cheryl will be finished by the end of February and will be entered into various film festivals.