Jesse Rodriguez '05 (left) and Kendal Swartzentruber '07, MA '12 (education), with youth leader Justin George, are co-state coordinators of the Virginia Department of Education’s award-winning “I’m Determined” project. (Courtesy photo)

Alumni educators co-produce short film series on teenagers in the disability community

Ask educators and filmmakers Kendal Swartzentruber ‘07, MA ‘12 and Jesse Rodriguez ‘05 to tell you the story of their current professional collaboration and they’ll quickly point to their time at Spotswood High School in Rockingham County.

There the two friends took a broadcasting class and were involved in a peer mentoring program that introduced them to the rewards of working alongside people with disabilities.

Fast forward several years. After graduating from Eastern Mennonite University’s teacher preparation program, both started their careers in separate special education classrooms in the Shenandoah Valley.

“We used to joke that we should teach together, but eventually we were able to make that happen at Montevideo, which ironically is where we both went to middle school,” Rodriguez said. They co-taught special education, created a new peer mentorship program that promoted inclusivity, and began incorporating their journalism and media skills into a classroom blog that included videos, photos and text created and published by their students.

Co-state coordinators Kendal Swartzentruber and Jesse Rodriguez welcome youth and parents to the 2022 Youth & Family Summit, an annual conference hosted by James Madison University. (Courtesy photo)

The duo now serve as co-state coordinators of the award-winning Virginia Department of Education’s I’m Determined project. The program, headquartered at James Madison University, includes 25 youth leaders, and 13 regional “Determinators” — special education professionals who consult with and facilitate programming for youth, educators, and families to practice self-determined behavior. 

In 2022, the National Disability Mentoring Coalition named the program as one of the five U.S. honorees in the Susan M. Daniels Disability Mentoring Hall of Fame. Rodriguez was also honored as 2022 Practitioner of the Year by Virginia’s Division on Career Development and Transition. (Swartzentruber was recognized similarly in 2019.)

Those media skills came in handy during the COVID pandemic, when programming went virtual. But Swartzentruber and Rodriguez also recognized that powerful storytelling could start conversations about important issues.

“We serve a population of individuals who are often not seen and heard and we use the skills we developed in journalism and marketing to raise them up and to allow them to be seen and heard,” Rodriguez said.

Their new nine-part short film series titled “Elemental” does just that — telling the stories of three teenagers within the disability community: a student-athlete learning how to advocate for his undiagnosed dyslexia; a student with cerebral palsy trying to be heard; and a young woman who is a caregiver for her autistic brother. 

The films will premiere at Court Square Theater on Wednesday, March 29. March is National Disability Awareness Month. Viewers can also find the videos on the Facebook event page and SexEdVA event page. View the event flyer here.

Each character engages with peers, parents, and educators; the theme of self-advocacy and self-discovery weaves together with the challenges of being a teenager in the 21st century world:  the characters encounter issues of social justice and intersectionality, disability rights, societal constraints and communication challenges, among other themes. 

“We didn’t want to wrap these characters and these stories in a bow,” Swartzentruber said. “It’s not about giving answers but it’s about the critical discourse that happens from watching it collectively. We really want you to think more deeply about what these characters are experiencing.”

One goal for the film series is to showcase important skills promoted within the I’m Determined program: choice making, self-regulation and self advocacy.

Kendal Swartzentruber and Jesse Rodriguez with youth at a dance-off during a social at an “I’m Determined” event. (Courtesy photo)

“So many times someone with a disability has been taught that they need to hide it or find ways to work around it or fix it, but our approach comes to them with the idea that it is a part of their identity that they can embrace and we all can embrace,” Rodriguez said. “How can we help them fold that into their own identity in a way that helps them be successful and allows them to share their unique perspectives and skills with others?”

The educators also want the stories of Tony, Steph, and Emma to help educate the general public about what it’s like to live with a disability and what it means to be a self-advocate.

“We work with highly talented individuals who successfully overcome what can be significant barriers on a daily basis,” Swartzentruber said. “If you are not in special education or in a profession where you  might interact with this population or you don’t have a family member with a disability, you may not know very much about or have a relationship with someone who can help you understand better.”

The 18-month project has not been without its stresses, as the partners kept other programming and collaborations going alongside the production work. But at the root of their work together is a deep and lasting friendship, which they realize has become a valuable model for those they interact with. 

“We realize that we are providing a unique example of people who care, especially men who care, and what that genuine care looks like,” Swartzentruber says. “That’s not a relational piece that a lot of families interacting in the special education world get to see.”

Rodriguez says their collective sensitivity and acceptance of and openness to diversity sets their partnership apart: “There’s something about our coordination and collaboration that is super unique …  [We] embrace the quirkiness of everyone, including ourselves!”