2019 News Stories

‘Animation Gets Real’ summer camp provides creative outlet for students with disabilities

by Chelsea Grosbeck

An annual summer camp hosted by Arts4All Florida inspired students with disabilities to explore careers in animation and music production while being their own creative directors. 

Imagining their own worlds, scenarios and characters, the Animation Gets Real Summer Camp is a week-long experience in which students transform their ideas to develop an animated story from concept to completion. Students create a soundtrack to enhance their animated clip by adding musical elements, like voiceovers and sound effects, and later present their work to family and friends during a final showcase at the end of the camp session.

Arts4All Florida is a nonprofit organization housed in the USF College of Education that is dedicated to bringing arts education to individuals with disabilities across Florida. The goal of the Animation Gets Real Summer Camp is to provide a positive learning environment for students on the autism spectrum, and to help students discover their strengths as future writers, videographers, storyboard artists and editors. 

“These are ‘transition-age’ students,” said Wendy Finklea, director of programs at Arts4All Florida. “At 14 years and up, they are getting ready to prepare for the workforce. One of our major goals it to give them the opportunity to experience something that could springboard them into future education and maybe the opportunity to gain employment and become productive citizens in our communities.”

Dani Bowman, the founder and chief creative officer of DaniMation Entertainment, started her company at 14-years-old. Bowman, who is also on the autism spectrum, uses her experiences to serve as an advocate and a teacher at the camp, helping students find their passions in the creative arts.

“(The camp’s) aim is for students to realize their own potential,” Bowman said. “If I can do it, they can do it.” 

One of Bowman’s returning students, Keaton Bicknell, attended one of her first camps she taught in 2011. Now, as a media production major at Flagler College, Bicknell returns as a contributing videographer for the summer camp. He said his time as a student in the camp led him to choosing his college major. 

“It really was an opportunity for me to see this as a career option,” Bicknell said. 

The camp’s curriculum offerings have expanded since Bicknell was a student in 2011. Over the years, the camp expanded from a half-day session only focusing on animation to a full-week session including musical elements taught by USF School of Music Associate Professor Clint Randles, PhD.

Randles says a lot of students take their musical assignments home to work on them. Teaching students how to use Apple’s GarageBand software makes their continued learning more accessible even after the conclusion of the camp.

“A lot of the time students come to the camp for the animation,” Randles said. “What they don’t know is, they are really musicians.” 

The camp fills up each year in Tampa and has expanded to include sessions in Miami. The foundation for the program is also making an international impact, with the recent launch of the UK DaniMation branch under Bowman’s company. 

Camp Volunteer Anne Rosato said she noticed a change in student’s self-confidence as they take on more musical challenges and collaborate with each other. 

“We’re really watching students experiment and gravitate to their own individual creative style,” Rosato said. “It’s a way for (students) to find that positive feeling when they create something that speaks to them.” 

While the camp serves as a fun experience for students to explore their creative side, it could also be the starting point for a career. While teaching at the camps, Bowman looks to add to her team of animators, creators and advocates on the autism spectrum.

Bowman said national data finds 89 percent of people who have autism are unemployed or underemployed, and the camp serves as an example of how students with disabilities can join the workforce. 

“I want to change the statistics,” Bowman says. “This is more than just about animation portfolio development. It’s to find a certain kind of career they like, finding what their passion is while being on the autism spectrum.”