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Contact: Tom Parisi, NIU Office of Public Affairs
December 8, 2008
DeKalb, Ill. — Northern Illinois University’s Drew McCormick spent some time this past summer inside the walls of Cook County Jail. Not to worry, though, he wasn’t in any sort of trouble.
McCormick is a budding filmmaker and graduate student in NIU’s Department of Communication. The Sycamore native traveled in August to Cook County Jail to videotape and direct an educational film aimed at a unique audience: incarcerated parents.
His 11-minute video, titled “Reach: Connect your Children to an Education,” will teach inmates how to advocate from behind bars for their children’s educational rights. It’s narrated by NBC-5 Chicago reporter LeeAnn Trotter, who donated her time to the project.
Many parents facing jail time end up making fragile arrangements for their children. And schools sometimes fail to recognize that children of incarcerated parents might fall under the definition of homeless. As such, their rights to public schooling are protected under federal law. A child can stay in his or her old school or attend one nearer to a new residence.
“A lot of (inmates) are, were or will be homeless – and they don't know about the law,” homeless advocate Diane Nilan says. “The video serves as a great awareness tool. There’s nothing like this out there.”
Nilan is founder of the non-profit Hear US, a Naperville-based organization that raises awareness about homelessness. HEAR US received funding to produce the video from the Cook County Sheriff’s Training Institute and Cook County Jail’s Women’s Justice Services.
“Drew did a great job,” Nilan says, adding that the rough cut has been well received in screenings with staff and inmates at Cook County Jail.
“The video moves fast and has a lot of content,” Nilan says. “Drew had his heart and soul in it, too, so it made it easy to work with him. People are very impressed.”
In addition to Cook County Jail, the video will be marketed to correctional facilities, lawyers and judicial systems nationwide.
NIU Communication Professor Laura Vazquez, who has worked with Nilan on other projects, put her in touch with McCormick. He was familiar with the topic of homelessness, having previously made a film about the Hope Haven shelter in DeKalb.
“He was grateful for the assistance from the people at Hope Haven, and in return volunteered at the shelter one night a week to teach folks living there how to draw,” Vazquez says. “I knew by this experience with him that he had the sensitivity to work on the jail project. I also saw that he was very talented, both in terms of camera work and editing.”
After a full day of videotaping at Cook County Jail, McCormick had plenty of material, which always means difficult editing decisions. All of Trotter's on-camera segments were filmed at the jail, but McCormick ended up leaving background footage from the correctional facility on the cutting-room floor.
He opted instead for images and interviews with school children.
“Early in the editing process, I realized (inmates) know where they are, that they don’t need to see the razor wire and bars,” he says.
The final version of the educational video should be ready by early January.
“I’ve been interested in the issues surrounding homelessness, but Diane is really the crusader,” McCormick says. “I like to contribute, and I’d rather contribute by using my talents. There’s something more concrete to doing work that can help someone.”
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