When Tom Smith Sr. approached filmmaker Tyann Sells to make a film commemorating the 2014 National Special Olympics games coming to New Jersey, he had in his mind a sports documentary like the ones he’d seen on TV.
In fact, that’s what he thought he would see when he arrived at the screening on May 30 at Mercer County Community College. Instead, he saw Defining Challenge, a documentary film that gives a first-hand account of the lives of four Special Olympics athletes and the families who support and cheer them on through all of life’s challenges and triumphs.
“I came to her with the idea and I trusted her to take it from there,” Smith said.
Sells has been making freelance promotional films in the Mercer County area since 2010 and met Smith through a film she made for the Hamilton Area YMCA’s SKOR program.
“The opportunity was in our own backyard,” she said as she explained the excitement in the months leading up to the games, which had an estimated 70,000 people visiting the state for the event. Sells began pre-production in September 2013.
The film, produced by Sells and directed by Omar Partilla, follows four Mercer County athletes and their families as they prepare for the event.
The games serve as a backdrop to an informative, inside look at what life is like for the parents of those with special needs. The family members express their fears and hopes candidly in front of the camera and offer an honest account of how their lives have been affected and enriched by their children.
The film delves deep into their lives as they open up to the viewers about the complexities of raising a special needs child from birth and into adulthood.
Sells originally set out to make a film about the preparation and lead up to the games, but she says the film naturally evolved as the parents’ journey’s outweighing the main event.
“The athletes are still a huge part of the story, but their parents give them the voices that we needed to hear,” Sells said.
Although she interviewed dozens of participants, the film features Special Olympic athletes John Rosati of Hamilton, Alexa Akin of Hamilton, Willy Donahue of Lawrence, and Tommy Smith Jr., Tom Smith Sr.’s son, of Hamilton.
Tommy’s mother, Laura Smith, also appears in the film, as well as Tommy’s sister, Kathryn Smith, who accompanies Tommy in his interviews to help him express himself by restating what he says with ease and clarity.
Tommy has Down Syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes intellectual disability and developmental delays, and Smith says that raising a child with special needs can be an isolating experience, but telling his story to the film crew was not difficult for him.
“When you have a special needs person in your life, a lot of the time as parents, you feel ostracized,” he said.
“It was a little intimidating at first,” he admits, but “it was nice to have someone actually ask and find out what that was like.”
As for Tommy, Smith said he enjoyed the film crew following him around and wasn’t at all intimidated by the cameras.
Elizabeth Donahue, Willy’s mother, said she was very comfortable telling her story to the cameras.
“We are very open about having a family member with disabilities,” she said.
Willy, who was born with developmental disabilities, is 21 years old and graduated from the Mercer County Special Services School in June. Donahue explains that as many of the services Willy received are being phased out as he ages, the Special Olympics are important because the services and programs will follow him into adulthood.
Donahue said the 2014 games and the Special Olympics in general are the perfect backdrop for the film.
“It knits it all together,” she said. “It’s a way we all come together as a community.”
“That’s his whole social life,” she said of Willy’s involvement in the Special Olympics.
The film follows Willy’s participation in the 2014 national games on the New Jersey track team, but he also plays basketball and recently became interested in power lifting.
The Special Olympics are also an important part of Tommy’s life. While the film focused on his softball participation in the 2014 Games, he also plays basketball and takes part in other programs the Special Olympics offers. Playing on the different teams is very involved and a big commitment, Smith says, but Tommy is up for the challenge.
“It’s made him more independent and more mature; he looks forward to the events where he gets to go away,” he said.
During the screening, Smith said he kept one eye on the screen and one eye on Tommy, who sat next to him. Tommy didn’t like hearing his family say that they have to tell him to get up in the morning, but otherwise he enjoyed the film and liked seeing himself on the screen.
The film also gave parents the opportunity to express their biggest anxieties. Several of the parents discuss the reality that they will not be around forever to take care of their children and worry about who will be there to take their place when they are gone.
Donahue says it’s a frightening subject, but it wasn’t difficult for her to talk about it with film crew.
“It’s the reality of our lives,” she said. “We have to be rational and practical.”
In the interviews the parents gave about their fears, Sells that although their honesty initially surprised her, it was an important for the film.
“I don’t think you can afford clichés,” she said. “I think you have to be honest and raw about it because that’s what people are going to connect with.”
Sells is currently working on getting Defining Challenge into film festivals and is planning to have another screening open to the public in August. Beyond that, she hopes to expand on the film and license it to nonprofit organizations for educational purposes.
She believes that the film could be used for new parents of special needs children to help inform them of the journey that lay ahead.
Smith agrees that the film would have great educational benefits.
“It’s not the end of the world, it’s just a different way to travel,” he said.
“When people consider a challenge, you can either take it and be crushed by it or you can take it and turn it into something that is going to fuel your passion for the rest of your life,” Sells said.
“That’s why we chose the title and why the title works. That’s what they’re doing; they are defining what a challenge is and they’re choosing how to handle it.”