Cushing Elementary students walked past signs encouraging them to be a good friend and stop bullying as they filed into the gym on Jan. 9 for the premiere of "We All Fit." Principal Rebecca Toetz pointed out the acts of kindness she sees at the school: students helping other people, even teachers, and including those who feel left out.
The setting was fitting for the premiere of the first music video created for Good Friend Inc., a public charity whose mission is to create autism awareness, teach acceptance of differences, and foster empathy for students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) among their typically-developing peers.
The music video was created by Milwaukee hip-hop artists The Figureheads, and included two Cushing Elementary students, twin brothers Jackson and Nicholas Cain of Delafield, among the cast. Nicholas, who has autism, was one of the main characters in the film. He and his brother are in the film, which is set to come out in May, and the music video, which is now on Youtube at www.you tube.com/watch?v=YQYjiSMc Vnc.
For Good Friend Inc. co-founder Denise Schamens, the project was a dream come true. Co-founder Chelsea Budde, who wrote the script for the film, said creating the music video "kind of had this esoteric feeling." Budde and Schamens both have children with autism. They founded Good Friend Inc., based in Waukesha, in 2007.
"When we shot the music video, we knew it was magical. When we shot the film, we knew it was magical," said Budde. "We just knew this whole thing was miraculous."
Cast members came together to create the film on a hot August day, with no air conditioning in the school where they were filming, Schamens said.
"They didn't care that it was 93 degrees. They worked tirelessly for two full days on a weekend in the summer," explained Schamens. "This was an amazing project for me."
Most of the cast members didn't know each other when the project started, yet when they reconvened a couple of months later in a warehouse on Milwaukee's east side to create the music video, it was a meeting of old friends.
"They were breathing and living what our mission is," said Budde.
Good Friend mission
When Budde's and Schamens' sons were in Early Childhood together, Schamens was the family engagement liaison for the Waukesha School District and Budde was "the nerdy mom" who kept showing up at meetings "with a binder of information." Schamens took her idea of a video on autism to Budde, who liked the idea, but wanted more. Budde wanted a curriculum, a way to engage students beyond simply watching a video.
From going into classrooms themselves and attending conferences, they kept hearing a resounding theme from parents of children with autism : "My kids don't have any friends." And they saw it happen with their own children.
According to the Good Friend Inc. website, as of 2012 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is reporting that one in 88 children in the country has an autism spectrum disorder.
"These children, as any others, need good friends. Children with autism are in our mainstream classrooms, and their typically developing peers aren't well-prepared," the website states.
Good Friend's mission is to "create autism awareness, teach acceptance of differences, and foster empathy among typically-developing peers."
Along with two videos already out — one for middle school children, which won the Autism Society of American Excellence Award — Schamens and Budde have conducted 66 assemblies in area elementary and middle schools since 2008.
The music video provides a venue for spreading the Good Friend mission that will stick with kids through the melody of The Figureheads' song, which gives the image of everyone being connected like pieces of a puzzle.
"We're all looking for a good friend — someone that we can be ourselves with, who will encourage us to be like one family," the song says. "That's it! The secret to the puzzle is know we all fit."