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Tearing down dividing walls

ChristiAnna Allen and Kalah McVay film an interview for their documentary, Equal Value, about McNary’s special needs students. (KEIZERTIMES/Eric Howald)

Of the Keizertimes

Earlier this year, ChristiAnna Allen would have lumped herself among those who found themselves in an awkward place when passing the McNary High School Developmental Learning Center students in the hall.

“I can honestly say that I was one of the students who would avoid the DLC students. I was always so unsure of myself,” Allen said.

But, as part of McNary Hands and Words are Not for Hurting class, Allen encountered a quote from the program founder, Ann Kelly: “We are not born equal, we are different, but we are all of equal value.” Allen and Kalah McVay, a freshman, are putting the finishing touches on a 20-minute documentary, titled Equal Value about the DLC students and their special needs that will debut at McNary’s Night of Unity Benefit Concert Monday, June 13, at 7 p.m., at the high school. Producing the short film turned Allen’s reactions to the DLC students 180 degrees.

“We went into it with the idea of this quote, but I didn’t actually believe it when we started, but along the way I did,” Allen said. “I realized I was a little misguided and learned to listen to myself.”

Tickets to the Night of Unity are $5 and the evening includes performances by the Highlanders jazz choir, solo performances, and a dance routine, possibly two. Celt Jesus Gomez will provide live accompaniment on the piano while the documentary rolls.

“Our mission in the Hands and Words class is to raise awareness of bullying and abuse in our community and the neglect of communities that are on the outside looking in,” McVay said.

Allen was already producing public service announcements in line with the mission of the class and McVay enlisted her to help. McVay’s end goal in the venture is to bring a Special Olympics unified basketball team, consisting of mainstream and special needs students, to the school. The documentary and concert are intended to help her raise the funds necessary to make the team a reality.

As part of the class, McVay started out with the notion that she wanted to do something about the school’s DLC population.

“The special education students are often put in different classrooms and they end up out of sight and out of mind. I wanted to make them feel welcome,” she said.

For every wall that McVay and Allen found between mainstream and DLC students, they found another erected by the DLC community. The process of filming became an act of breaking down barriers.

“It’s a very touchy subject. I had to learn new communication skills and how to get around the barriers people throw up,” McVay said. “The teachers’ and parents’ first priority is to protect their students and it was difficult for them to accept help or realize that we’re there to advocate for them.”

The documentary features interviews with teachers, parents and siblings of DLC students and, when possible, interviews with the students themselves. In the process of filming, things that they expected to work well in the planning stages had to be tweaked to accommodate student needs.

“Our eyes were opened to the reality that we weren’t going to be able to do it our way. We had to change the way we approached the whole thing,” Allen said. “The documentary was meant to show some of the mistreatment and they way that people look down on non-traditional students.”

“But the more we talked to people about it, the more it became something we’re hoping to inspire people with,” McVay added.