New Film Focuses on At-Risk MRH Students Who Stayed at Joe's Place
St. Louis resident Matt Seilback directed the film, which premiers Saturday night at MRH High School.
Filming a movie about homeless youth in the Maplewood Richmond Heights School District proved to be a "profound" experience for Matt Seilback.
"They were very engaging, and they asked me questions about my life regularly," said Seilback, speaking about the four boys he followed during the 2008-2009 school year.
Three of them—Jeff, Steven and Fred—were seniors, and the fourth, Ty're, an eighth-grader during the time of filming, is Fred's younger brother. They stayed at Joe's Place, a residence that at any given time serves as a home to up to four homeless teenage boys, who can stay at the residence throughout their high school career until graduation. The project is a partnership involving the district, local churches, Community Alternatives and numerous volunteers, the Joe's Place website states.
Joe's Place, which accepted its first student in January 2007, provides its guests with housing from Sunday nights until Fridays, said Tom Wickersham, director of communications for the school district. Teens get meals, a clean room and a place to sleep. Contributions from the community have made it possible to give the teens Christmas gifts. The house parents take students on college visits and to doctor appointments. Teens also receive support, guidance and emotional counseling.
Seilback's movie is set to premiere at 7 p.m. Saturday at the MRH High School theater. Proceeds from that and a wine reception to follow will benefit Joe's Place.
In a phone interview last week, Seilback said the opportunity to film the boys arose during an internship with Crossroads Presbyterian Fellowship Church in Maplewood.
He and church pastor Andrew Vander Maas, who helped start Joe's Place, discussed the idea of making a film about the residence, and it stuck.
"It was really a natural fit," said Seilback, who was already friends with house parent Dan Reeve. Reeve serves in that capacity with his wife, Alyssa. What's more, Seilback said, he was intrigued by what they were doing.
Vander Maas said his congregation has been involved in the work at Joe's Place since its inception. The idea for a such a house developed from a conversation he had with MRH Superintendent Linda Henke. "'Andrew, we need to do something about homeless kids,'" he recalled her saying.
Now, Vander Maas serves as co-chair of the Joe's Place board, whose responsibilities include making decisions and hiring staff. It was the board that signed off on the film project and provided initial funding.
"As we look at these kids and where they've been, particularly the kids that the documentary focuses on, I just think it's a great story that needs to be told," Vander Maas said. In a sense, he said, it is a great story of redemption. At the same time, the reality is that there are homeless students throughout metro St. Louis.
"I think communities need to wake up and figure out how they're going to deal with that," he said. In the case of Joe's place, members of the MRH community—including those who are part of his congregation—have stepped forward by donating meals, giving money and holding fundraisers.
"It's been a total community effort, which I think is one of the really beautiful things about the story as well," Vander Maas said.
Seilback began filming in October. He encountered a few hiccups in getting permission to film from some of the parents involved, but it went a lot more smoothly than he had expected.
At the time, Seilback was a full-time student at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis. While it limited his filming, not having a full-time job gave him flexibility to capture the boys both at school and at home.
In all, he took 50 hours of footage.
Seilback said he witnessed a transformation in the boys during his time there.
"They came in there much more troubled and then just opened up because of that engagement they were provided and the care they were given," he said.
Much of the drama, Seilback said, unfolded at Joe's Place at night. Events played out as they would in any home. To illustrate his point, he describes a night when two incidents occurred: An argument ensued after Fred thought Jeff had taken his hairbrush, and Steve learned that his girlfriend might not be able to attend prom that weekend.
"It's just normal life stuff," Seilback said. "It was nothing overly dramatic, but just like a family."
Wickersham, the schools' communications director, said federal law requires public schools to track homeless students. MRH school officials approach individual families about the opportunities provided at Joe's Place on an as-needed basis. While housing is not provided on weekends, the hope is that the students get to foster relationships with their own families during those periods, Wickersham said. He has seen an early screening of the film.
"I believe it is an impressive work by the filmmaker," said Wickersham, adding that it captures the stories of the various people involved in Joe's Place in an engaging way.
When it came time to find a person to voice the film, Seilback contacted John Seel, whom he knew through a mutual friend. Seel has worked with Walden Media (readers may recognize it as the group behind The Chronicles of Narnia films). Seilback explained that he was working on a budget of less than $6,000 for the movie. Seel, in turn, immediately recommended that Seilback contact David Oyelowo, known for his work in The Last King of Scotland.
It took Seilback a couple of days to get up the courage to contact Oyelowo. He put together an email with his production crew and waited.
"My hand hovered over the send button for probably a minute or two," Seilback said.
Within half an hour, Oyelowo had sent back a response: He would voice the film for free.
"I was thrilled," Seilback said. The Los Angeles Film Studies Center allowed the two to use its facility for free, and he obtained a sponsor to pay for his plane ride and hotel. He flew to L.A. and worked with Oyelowo to record the voiceover for the film in less than an hour. In a YouTube video, Oyelowo describes why he wanted to participate in the project.
Seilback hopes those who watch the film see the beauty and simplicity of caring for those in need. It's the seemingly small things—mundane, day-to-day tasks—that have large ramifications, he said.
As for the reactions of parents whose boys are featured in the film, Seilback said many aren't involved in their children's lives or are no longer living. But he speculates that Steven's mother intends to see the movie: She has liked the Facebook page for the movie and has expressed excitement about the project.
Seilback said he doesn't want to limit possibilities for future distribution of the film. He would like to share it with a television outlet such as PBS or publish it on DVD. He has been working with the director of a higher-end cable station, which serves numerous colleges, to air the film.
Vander Maas, the Crossroads pastor, said the film is well done. It brings out both the brokenness in the lives of the boys and also "a lot of the love and support and care that has been poured into them and has really made a mark," he said.
The $80,000-per-year cost of the program is sometimes criticized, Vander Maas said, but it's important to consider three factors.
First, a price can't be placed on any person. If the program helps someone in a significant way, he said, it's worthwhile.
Second, between 10 and 15 boys have been helped over the life of the program, not just those depicted in the film. Placement is always voluntary, he said, and some of the boys have been able to reunite with family.
Third, the cost of preparing the boys for college is far less than the cost to society should they end up in prison down the road.
"I really think that this is a worthwhile program," Vander Maas said.