BAY AREA: Joey Travolta’s film camps for special needs students create videos for positive message campaign

Two students from Class 1 of Joey Travolta’s Vallejo Film Camp hosted by Touro University of California pitch their idea to him (center in grey shirt) and teacher Roger Welch while their classmates look on and a crew from Travolta’s Inclusion Films, including cameraman Danny Sarokin (left), shoot the proceedings on Thursday, July 14, 2022. Photos by Allen D. Payton

Each class develops theme, pitches Travolta then creates a film for use by Pass It On of The Foundation for a Better Life

By Allen D. Payton

Director, actor and former special education teacher, Joey Travolta held his third of three film camps in Northern California, last week, for students between 18 and 24 years old with an intellectual disability, to create short videos for use by PassItOn.com for their positive message campaign in theaters, as well as on TV and billboards.

Each film will be five to seven minutes long and “every story has to have the theme of kindness or doing something good, and the thought is don’t hesitate to pass it on,” Travolta explained.

According to his Inclusion Films’ website, “over the two-week session, campers work together in small groups to develop a script, act, and shoot their film with professional support and equipment. The program encourages communication, confidence, and collaboration through acting and digital filmmaking. Stay tuned for future dates & announcements.”

Joey Travolta questions the students from Class 1 pitching their film idea as teacher Roger Welch and the other students look on and cameraman Danny Sarokin shoots the scene.

Travolta and a crew from his Inclusion Films, which includes neuro diverse adults from his brick-and-mortar school in Bakersfield, were also in Antioch last year filming a brief documentary entitled “Music Heals” for the biennial Stand Down on the Delta for military veterans planned for last fall. But due to COVID, that event didn’t occur, so the film was shown during the Music Heals Concert at El Campanil Theatre earlier this month. (See related articles here, here and here

Travolta and staff are holding the latest camp last week and this week on Mare Island in Vallejo, inside the campus of Touro University of California, following camps with the same theme in Livermore, with partners Futures Explored, in Stockton with the Lodi School District and the first one in Arkansas at the end of April.

The Vallejo camp was supported by the Solano County Office of Education (SCOE) and Susan Labrecque, SCOE Senior Director, Kesha Lovett, SCOE Program Manager for Workforce Development and the entire staff from SCOE Workforce Development Department were on hand to assist the students and watch the process.

“All participants are clients of North Bay Regional Center services which is how the camp is funded, along with the Solano County Office of Education to provide youth with skills that transition into the world of work,” Labrecque explained.

The camp was divided into three groups of students and the classes were each led by a separate teacher. On Thursday, July 14, the students presented their film concepts to Travolta, with two of the classmates chosen to make the pitch.

Class 1 film pitch.

Class 1 Pitch

The first class was led by Roger Welch who’s been teaching at the camps since 2018.

“I’m a family friend and real close with Joey’s sister, Ellen,” he said. “I ran a theater company in Idaho, and she lived in the town and acted in several shows. I got to know the whole family.”

Asked how he connected with the camp Welch said, “when I left that job and was in New York at a dinner with Ellen, Joey, who I’ve known for years, and his wife Wendy, he asked me what I was doing that summer and said, ‘come work for me’ so, I did.”

“I’ve been doing professional theater and film all my life and I’m a teaching artist,” he continued. “I’ve never worked with a neuro diverse population before. But I’ve just worked with them like any other students, using improv as a teaching tool. I’ve found it very challenging but very rewarding.”

“When I’m not doing this, I’m a freelance director for theater all over the country and the director and choreographer of entertainment for the American Queen Voyages,” which is a fleet of river boats on the Mississippi and Columbia Rivers and Great Lakes.

After approval by Travolta of their film concept, students from Class 1 celebrate and congratulate each other.

Two students were chosen to pitch the film concept from their class.

“I’ve only rejected one story. So, good luck,” Travolta said to laughter from the students. He later said that was true and it was because the film’s theme was too depressing.

The first pitch was a sci fi film about friendship and involved a spaceship.

Travolta asked how much it was going to cost him.

The students suggested it could become a series.

“Have you cast this, already?” Travolta asked.

“No,” Welch said.

One of the female students then offered to be an actress in the film. Another student, Sean volunteered to be an actor for it, too.

“I don’t have any say in that,” Travolta responded.

“I don’t like it. I love it!” he then said to cheers and applause from the class.

Class 2 Student Jaylon speaks with teacher Barry Pearl before he and classmate Daniel prepare to pitch to Travolta, as they await his arrival.

Class 2 Pitch

The second class was taught by actor Barry Pearl, who portrayed the part of Doody in the movie “Grease” in which Joey’s younger brother John had the lead role playing opposite Olivia Newton John.

“It’s an amazing program,” Pearl said. “I’ve been with it for nine years.”

The Inclusion Films crew, which includes adult students Travolta’s school in Bakersfield, prepares to shoot the pitch by Class 2.

Two students in his class pitched their film ideas to him and Travolta.

“This is my third year of camp but my first pitch,” said student Jaylon. His pitch partner, Daniel said this is his third pitch.

“I hope Joey approves” he said to Barry.

Travolta then entered the room asking the students which way he should go to get to his chair.

“I’m really excited about this pitch. The first one went well,” Travolta said after he was seated.

Travolta speaks with the students from Class 2 about the film they’re pitching him and Pearl.

“The name of our film is called ‘The Kindness of the Heart’ about two students who don’t have enough money for lunch,” Daniel explained.

“Two other students raise money to help,” Jaylon shared.

Travolta asked where the film would take place. They said it will be in a school in the cafeteria and outside.

Travolta then asked a female student he named “Princess Sophia”, her thoughts.

“I think this is good, Joey Travolta,” she said.

“If Princess Sophia says it’s good, then you’re approved,” he stated to cheers from the two who pitched and the other students from the class who were sitting and watching the pitch.

Class 3 Pitch

The third class was facilitated by Jessica Saul, a teacher with Inclusion Films. Her background is in neurodiverse theater with a company based in New York and she’s working to bring them to California.

She lives in LA and works with the camps. It’s been a wonderful experience because it brings together my two passions of performing and teaching.

“I connected with Joey through an organization called RespectAbility and he was looking for another teacher and here we are,” Saul said.

The film crew and class prepared for the pitch and Travolta’s arrival.

Students Brian and Cassidy from Class 3 pitch their film concept to Travolta and teacher Jessica Saul.

When he entered the room to applause from the students, Travolta walked toward them asking “how ya doing?” He then said, “I have a question before we start” then like a big kid, turned around and asked, “does my butt make these pants look big?” to laughter from the class.

“No answer from me,” replied one student.

The two students to give the pitch, Brian and Cassidy, placed leis around Travolta’s neck saying, “Aloha”.

“The title of this film is called ‘The Competition’,” they said.

“I like that,” Travolta responded, “What kind of competition?”

“It’s in Hawaii. It’s a talent competition,” Brian explained. “Elvis needs to win the competition so he can afford to go to the Berklee School of Music.”

Each story from the classes has an antagonist.

“Mark and Charlie plan to sabotage Elvis and steal his guitar,” said Brian.

“You’re scaring me,” Travolta said.

“You’re not giving me the end, now, right? Travolta asked.

“No,” they responded, then continued explaining the storyline.

Travolta listens to a joke by one of the students in Class 3 who used a special computer to speak for him as the Inclusion Films crew shoots and his classmates listen.

“I gotta tell you, you guys have me on the edge of my seat. That’s because I have a bad back,” Travolta joked.

The students continued with their pitch.

He then asked, “Are you going to use a green screen?”

Cassidy said, “Brian is going to play Elvis.”

“What are you going to do for Hawaii?” Travolta asked.

Saul pointed to the trees outside saying, “they were inspired by the outside.”

Travolta asked, “who’s going to play Elvis?”

“Thank you very much,” Brian responded giving an elvis impression.

He then asked if Travolta wanted to hear him sing Burnin’ Love.

“I’d like that,” Travolta responded. But before he had Brian start, he asked another student to call “action”.

Brian then sang part of the song to cheers from the class, Travolta and Saul.

Travolta responded by singing, “You’re nothing but a hound dog” to laughter from the students.

“I like this a lot,” he said. “You’re utilizing the area, which is very, very practical.”

“So, I have to approve this,” Travolta stated.

As Saul led the sound of a drumroll with hands on thighs, Travolta turned and asked one of the other students for his opinion of the film idea. The student gave a loud approval.

“OK, guys, you’re approved!” Travolta exclaimed to cheers and high fives from the students.

Brian had to then chase down Travolta, who had left the class, to get the back leis which were needed as props for the film.

See video of Class 3 film pitch and approval: Joey Travolta Vallejo Film Camp Class 3 Pitch 07142022 – YouTube

Inclusion Films Crew

The film crew for the day consisted of staff of Inclusion Films some of whom were previous students in Travolta’s classes.

“I had experience in the music industry,” crew member Mobley said. “So, I stepped up and I’ve been doing sound ever since.”

Crew member Brandon said he’s a student at Inclusion Films in Bakersfield. “I’m part of the upper class,” he added.

“Often times the students get positions in the film industry, including films with John,” Pearl said.

Danny Sarokin, Travolta’s lifelong friend, and NYU film school graduate, was a cameraman at the school.

“I grew up with Joey in New Jersey,” he shared. “We were on the wrestling team. I was a freshman, and he was a senior and he kind of took me under his wing. He’s been mentoring me ever since.”

“In the mid-90’s I co-wrote a children’s film called ‘Everyone Loves Mel’ that starred Ernest Borgnine. Joey directed it and was involved in the producing of it,” said Sarokin.

“I was a camera operator on Carol of the Bells and that was a great experience,” he continued, referring to Inclusion Films’ first full-length movie. “In 2018 Joey brought me back and I’ve been working at the summer camps, as a camera man. We get to mentor the kids, and we get to pass it on.”

Sarokin works for Travolta’s school in Bakersfield, teaching screen writing by Zoom as he lives in L.A. He also filled in as an editing teacher.

“We’ve actually filmed the first script that we wrote in the class just recently,” Sarokin shared. “That one is 30 to 40 minutes long. They cut it down to 25 minutes and show it on cable. It’s called Lost Luggage.”

According to the film’s logline which provides the plot, it’s about two African American sisters who find their grandma’s diary in a hidden suitcase in the basement. Upon reading, they learn about her teen romance with a white classmate in a racially charge environment. The sisters try to reunite with this lost love.

According to a Dec. 10, 2021 report by Lodinews.com it was filmed at McNair High School in Lodi, California last October and was created with Lodi Unified students.

“Now, they’re in preproduction on the second script we wrote in the school,” Sarokin added.

Travolta Shares About the Camps and His Organization

Travolta takes a moment for a photo with the Herald’s Administrative Assistant (and the publisher’s mother) DeeAnn Payton at the Vallejo film camp.

Following the three class pitches, Travolta took some time to answer questions, mostly asked by the Herald’s administrative assistant, DeeAnn Payton, who was also at the camp and saw the pitches of all three classes.

“Now, they actually make their films on site,” he said. “Each class will show the rough cut of their film at the camp this Friday.”

“Some of these films will be on the Pass It On website,” Travolta continued. “Then we have the big, red-carpet screening. The kids dress up in tuxedos, have limousines and they get little Academy Awards.”

That’s being planned for some time, this fall.

“The camps are for the younger ones and the location in Bakersfield is for adults,” Travolta explained. “We do the training year-round and do movies like Carol of the Bells.”

“They learn soft skills like communication,” he added.

Asked how decided to start the film school and camps, Travolta said, “I was a special ed teacher in 1973 before I got into show business. I’ve been doing this since 2006.”

He also hosts workshops for adults in San Jose, San Diego and San Bernardino with partners Options For All and in Livermore, Sacramento and Stockton with Futures Explored, as well.

“We’re getting a lot of work from the state and regional centers and every time we do a job half the crew is made up of students trained at the various workshops,” Travolta said.

They have seven brick-and-mortar studios in California each one 5,000 to 8,000 square feet in size, that operate year-round with professionals teaching.

“They’re all funded through the Regional Centers,” he said.

“Then once the students have honed their skills, they get work with one of the three production companies” – Futures, Options and Inclusion – Travolta shared.

“It’s a gift for us to work with this population and we probably get more out of it than the kids, and they get a lot out of it,” he added. “I wish I was 20 years younger.”

Travolta has lived in San Francisco since last year when he and Wendy moved up from L.A. to help take care of their grandson who is two years old.

This Friday, the students will present the rough cut of their films to Joey.

Host Touro University of California

Asked how Touro University of California’s campus was selected to host the camp, Provost Sarah Sweitzer, PhD said, “Our connection is actually through SCOE who approached us to host this fantastic camp for our young people with disabilities in Solano County. This is our first summer.”

“Our mission is to serve, lead and teach and our function is to serve as an anchor institution in the North Bay counties,” she continued. “It’s at the heart of our mission to create equity in health and education to close the opportunity gaps, especially for our underserved communities.

“We’re a graduate school for healthcare, education and public health – the heart of the pandemic,” Sweitzer stated.

According to their website Touro is America’s largest private institution of higher and professional education under Jewish auspices with over 19,000 students across 35 schools in four countries and first opened in 1971.

The California campus is a graduate school with about 1,300 students. They’re renovating building number eight and they’re celebrating their 25th anniversary, Sweitzer added.

One of the many positive PassItOn messages.

About Pass It On

According to PassItOn.com, for 21 years, the Pass It On campaign promoting positive values has provided uplifting and encouraging messages. It is a project of The Foundation for a Better Life, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.

DeeAnn Payton contributed to this report.

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DeeAnn Payton with Joey Travolta at the film camp 071422


PassItOn Garth Brooks


Touro University California logo


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Joey Travolta Film Camp Class 1 celebrate & congrats 07142022


Joey Travolta Film Camp Class 3 Pitch 2 07142022


Joey Travolta Film Camp Class 3 Pitch 1 07142022


Joey Travolta Film Camp Class 2 Pitch 3 07142022


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