Villanova class does good through documentaries

Tom Smith, Ellie Wright, and McKenna Hinkle in Villanova University's social justice documentary class.
Tom Smith, Ellie Wright, and McKenna Hinkle in Villanova University's social justice documentary class. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 08, 2014

VILLANOVA Senior Tom Smith attends college in the heart of the Main Line, but he says his experience in North Philadelphia has transformed him.

Smith, with Villanova University classmate McKenna Hinkle, was codirector of Heel'd, a half-hour documentary about Hand2Paw, an organization that connects homeless pets with homeless youths.

"It changed my career. It changed my life. It changed me," Smith, 22, of Media, said of the film, the fall-semester project of the university's social justice documentary class.

The six-credit course had 15 students working 30 hours a week each outside of class time - and loving it.

Hand2Paw aims to provide sheltered pets with training and grooming, placing that responsibility on the 18- to 21-year-olds in the program. The Philadelphia nonprofit hopes the project will help raise money and awareness.

The Villanova course likewise has two purposes: Teach students about making documentaries, and bring attention to local groups that work for social change.

"We stress story," said John A. O'Leary, an assistant professor who is one of the course's faculty members.

Villanova students have produced 10 additional films on topics such as homelessness and disabilities, including one centered on the Overbrook School for the Blind. Organizations that were subjects have used the documentaries as fund-raising tools.

The idea for the Hand2Paw film was born in a Queen Village beauty shop.

Penny Ellison, Hand2Paw's executive director, is a client of hairdresser Julie Ebner. Ebner suggested Hand2Paw as a possible documentary project to another customer, O'Leary's wife, Stacey.

A match was made.

"I was blown away. I was so excited," Ellison said.

The film focuses on the experience of Jerome, a homeless teenager at Covenant House, an organization that helps at-risk youth. Students followed him on the streets and while he worked with the dogs at the Pennsylvania SPCA at 350 E. Erie Ave.

Jerome is a success story for Hand2Paw, Ellison said. He went from volunteering with Hand2Paw to a full-time job at the PSPCA, she said.

"There is a lot of sadness in this film," said Stephen McWilliams, another faculty member. He said he hoped the film would bring awareness to the college students as well.

"It was really an eye-opener to go to Covenant House with the PSPCA and see kids who are our age, who don't know where they are going to sleep that night," said Ellie Wright, 19, of New Canaan, Conn., a sophomore communication major.

While the fall semester is over and the film is done, work continues for the students. The group is trying to generate national attention for the film and the organization, and plans to enter the New Hope and Philadelphia Film Festivals.

Smith called the class the best he had taken and said he aspired to to work on documentaries for a living.

Seeing Jerome - who is his age - and others struggling with basic needs and little support made an impact, he said.

"A lot of Villanova students, when they think of going a service trip, think of going to other countries, but you don't need to do that," he said. "Ten minutes away, you can find real service to do to help your community."

A local screening of Heel'd is expected in February.



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