by Sharon Chin and Jennifer Mistrot

Just like his famous younger brother, Joey Travolta has some serious dance moves. But it’s not the Saturday Night Live-type. Instead, this other Hollywood veteran recently hit the dance floor with more than 50 students at his Inclusion Films summer day camp. The day campers, aged 10 to 22, are all living with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

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Travolta and his team of industry pros are introducing the aspiring filmmakers to the craft. It’s the life’s work of Travolta and his younger brother, John Travolta.

The recent dance session took place at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, and is one of several day camps nationwide Travolta has offered for the last 10 years. The former special education teacher partnered at the camp with Lafayette-based Futures Explored, which serves people with disabilities. The goal is to give the campers like aspiring 16-year-old actress Wesley Lipping a chance to shine.

“It feels pretty good,” said Lipping. “Because this is the first part I’ve gotten where I have a lot of lines.”

But the students aren’t just dancing, they are learning to operate the latest movie-making equipment. They also team up to pitch their ideas, write a script, then act, shoot and edit a short film with a commercial.  Their instructors are industry veterans like Barry Pearl, who played the role of “Doody” alongside John Travolta in the movie classic Grease.

But the camp is not all fun and games. It is also designed to address a very serious employment issue. According to labor data in California, about nine out of every 10 adults with autism and intellectual disabilities are unemployed. Just as staggering, national numbers show that adults with intellectual disabilities are twice as likely to be jobless. So Travolta sees his program as groundbreaking for an industry that hasn’t always made inclusivity a big priority.

“The greatest thing was the sense of community,” said Travolta. “Everyone was made to feel a part of something.”

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Will Sanford, Executive Director of Futures Explored, also called the two-week program a game changer in terms of  future job opportunity. “Traditionally, for folks with intellectual and developmental disabilities, they’ve been in food service, janitorial landscaping, bagging at grocery store,” explained Sanford.

Veteran director Roger Welch said the students have taught him that they can achieve much more, if they’re given the chance.

“The thing that’s wonderful is that they’re included,” said Welch. “And they get to do things that maybe they weren’t asked to do before, and they excel at it.”

This fall, the students will be able to see their finished product on the big screen, complete with a red carpet premiere. Later, their films will air on Inclusion Networks, a new subscriber-based online channel that Travolta and his nonprofit teams just launched. Inclusion Networks showcases work produced by people with disabilities.

“So what we’re trying to do is monetize that content, and then put it right back into the system with job support and paid internships,” explained Travolta.

Summer camp graduates often get more training through Inclusion Films’ year-round adult workshops, with some ending up with paying jobs. Several are currently working on a movie starring John Travolta.

This fall, Joey Travolta expects to open a new film workshop for adults in San Jose. The workshop will cost $9,000 for a 20-week program. The summer program costs $1,700 for two weeks, but some students get financial help through the Regional Center of the East Bay.  But for Joey Travolta, it’s not about the money, it’s about the opportunity.

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“We’re breaking these doors down,” said Travolta. “And it’s taken time to do that. But it’s why I do what I do.”