Special needs students excel in SCIFF internship

Entertainment students from Yes I Can take a photo together with Executive Director Bret Leiberman prior to the the Santa Clarita International Film Festival Red Carpet event at the Laemmle Newhall theater on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2022. Chris Torres/The Signal
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Earlier this month, Yes I Can was able to secure a contract signing for Jake Arvizu, who is on the autism spectrum, at LA North Studios following an internship.  

Bret Lieberman, executive director for Yes I Can, said getting companies to see through the stigma surrounding adults with special needs is a difficult job — but LA North was one of the few that gave them a shot.   

“I can’t even find the words. I think what we worked so hard on is trying to demystify what a disability is, and there’s always some stereotype and sometimes companies feel like, ‘Oh, we’re doing them a favor,’” said Lieberman at Arvizu’s contract signing. Then with Jake’s situation when we said, ‘We’re sending you somebody who’s trainable, who’s gonna show up on time, who’s got a strong work ethic, who’s intelligent, give them a shot,’ LA North was one of those companies that said, ‘Alright, let’s try with one and if it works out, we want more of your individual.’”  

Lieberman said the experience left a sentiment that brought relief and optimism within the organization. That feeling was rectified when Yes I Can was able to secure 12 of their students  paid internship positions at the Santa Clarita International Film Festival — marking yet another advance for the special needs community in the film industry.  

Like Arvizu’s story, Lieberman said the stereotype that businesses are doing adults with special needs a favor is actually the other way around and that, just like LA North, SCIFF was quick to realize that.  

“I think it’s very important because an organization like SCIFF and LA North, these places that are willing to take on talented individuals, changes the stereotype. I think it’s very important for people to understand you’re not doing a favor, necessarily, for that individual. You’re doing a favor for your business by getting somebody who’s going to work hard,” said Lieberman. “Any job that was asked of our individuals, they did it and then were ready for more work right after that.” 

Lisa deSouza, founder and executive director at SCIFF, said having the interns do jobs and perform tasks beyond what the typical intern might was one of the ways SCIFF wanted to help break down this stigma — instead of making copies or doing coffee runs, students were tasked with working cameras, project management, resource allocation, marketing, budgets, artist relations and even giving critiques on submissions.   

“I would challenge people in the industry. I think they look at people with disabilities and go, ‘Oh, let’s just put them on, you know, making photocopies or scanning or you know, or running to go get coffee.’ Why don’t you challenge them to be more? Why don’t you set a plan that they can learn from and grow from? Because at the end of the day, they’re human beings and human nature is once you feel empowered, and you feel confident and you feel like you’re making forward motion. It’s human nature to get excited and rise to it and I saw all these kids do that,” said deSouza.   

One of these students was William Felber, who is high-functioning and on the autism spectrum. Felber said after following a career in welding, and being successful in it, he found that he had no passion for it. Felber’s passion is film, specifically voice acting — something he said accommodated him in more ways than one. 

“With COVID, it made things a little harder for the acting field because you had to stay home. You couldn’t go out and do auditions, you had to try and do at-home auditions,” said Felber. “I absolutely hated doing those at home. Because I would always be too perfectionist — I would always have to keep setting up and taking down my stuff, for backgrounds and the camera. It just frustrated me to no end. So I ended up favoring voiceovers more anyway, because you just have a closet with a microphone and I just go to town.” 

While at the film festival, Felber said he was able to watch films, talk with other people and get an understanding of how work in the film industry was done. Felber’s experience not only helped him immerse in film, but also helped him with a common hurdle for many with autism — everyday social situations.  

“Trying to be social of my own accord, it’s hard to maintain even small talk and there’s just sort of social anxiety there,” said Felber. “But when there’s a task involved, at least for my case, I don’t think I can speak for everyone, it feels like a necessity, like a sort of purpose, that’ll just get me out of the chair … just to feel like I need to do something and knowing what I need to talk about helps with putting that social anxiety aside, to just simply get the task done … . One of the things that was great about working at this festival was the human interaction while doing a task. I can’t say it’s something that I would do a lot, but in this case, it was good. So I’m very happy that I was able to do this internship and be able to break out of my shell.” 

Felber said the staff at SCIFF were patient with the students while not tampering their expectations in a condescending manner. Things move pretty quickly at a film festival and things don’t always go according to plan — a challenge for many on the autism spectrum who crave structure and routine.   

“For people with autism and other disabilities mentally, it takes us a little longer than others to fully grasp what our task is. We could either learn it right away or we can take a lot longer than others and be repetitive about our questions — and what we really need is a little more patience than required,” said Felber. “For some that would be a difficult task because people will just want to get the job done quickly and I completely understand that, most of us do… but (there were) so many people… we worked with and who were just patient with us. Like we didn’t see any scouts I didn’t hear any sort of bad talk about us. It was just nice to be in an area around people who were just accepting.” 

While the people at SCIFF were immensely impressed with the work of the 12 students and made it clear they would continue to work with Yes I Can in the future to bring more students into the fold in between festivals, none seemed more proud than Lieberman.  

“I’m beyond proud of our students, I’m proud of the work we do. With Yes I can, I love the fact that our program offers these career skills training for free. I love to be the catalyst to somebody’s success, for somebody to find what they’re passionate about through our program and turn that passion into a paycheck. I really don’t think there’s anything more rewarding. There’s usually that stigma of trying to like, get pity work or work at a place where you’re stocking shelves, and that’s not what we’re trying to do,” Lieberman said. “We’re trying to find individuals that want more than that, that are capable of more than that.” 

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