Award-winning producer starts documentary program for underserved Colorado Springs youth

Mabel the chicken gets a bath. BILL RADFORD, THE GAZETTE

It wasn't until leaving Colorado Springs that Tom Shepard produced four award-winning feature documentary films.

This summer, he's returned to his hometown to kickstart a new documentary program for underserved high school-aged youth. The six-week Youth Documentary Academy hosted by Bemis School of Art began last week and runs through mid-July.

"We think, why not teach folks directly from their communities," Shepard said. "I think it's really empowering for youth because youth are not often given a voice in public discourse or the political process."

Shepard recruited documentary veterans Aaron Burns and Suzan Beraza to co-teach the course with him. Burns, a former actor, produced several documentaries in Los Angeles before moving to Colorado, where he teaches at the Colorado Film School in Denver. Beraza is an award-winning film producer and founder of Reel Thing Films.

Burns relishes the opportunity to share his film experience with youth.

"Our students probably don't have the finances to purchase video equipment on their own," he said. "This gives them a unique opportunity to do something productive during the summer that they wouldn't necessarily have access to otherwise."

The inaugural class of 12 students comes from local public and charter schools and one is home-schooled.

Amadea Katz, a 15-year-old Coronado High School student, learned of the program through her mother, who is involved in the local poetry community. Katz enjoys writing but has limited experience with video production.

"I thought this would be a cool, new way to tell a story," she said.

Tino Pacheco Johnson, a 15-year-old Achieve K-12 student, is a fan of action and comedy movies. "I want to see my name up there," he said, referring to the film credits.

Sarah Patterson, a 17-year-old Palmer High student, said she was "ecstatic" when she found out that she received a spot in the program. After taking a film class her sophomore year, she has been "inspired to go into filmmaking."

Will Sobolik, an 18-year-old graduate of CIVA Charter High School, considers the program to be a good bridge between his experience in filmmaking and his first semester of college at Pikes Peak Community, where he will study graphic design on a full tuition scholarship.

The documentary students share ambitious goals. Their projects capture family stories, personal struggles and contentious debates. In July, they plan on distributing their films at local screenings, in schools and public libraries and online.

Katz's documentary highlights the struggles of LGBT youth. Katz is profiling a transgender youth who has faced plenty of bullying. "I just want to tell a story about why it (bullying) is wrong and how we can treat everyone equally," Katz said.

Pacheco Johnson plans on producing a film on graffiti. "I want to show that it's actual art," he said. "I think it expresses the person's personality."

Patterson and Sobolik's documentaries stem from family inspirations. Patterson's project is about several of her grandpa's paintings, which were found inside Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station. Sobolik's focuses on the importance of supporting local musicians, one of whom is his uncle.

Two weeks into the program, students and instructors appear encouraged.

"They've just been fantastic," Burns said. "We really got the cream of the crop."

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