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Volunteer Videography
Posted Jul 28, 2006 Print Version     Page 1of 1

When Christine Heeren moved to Virginia Beach in 1993, she met the family of a child who had autism. Through that family, Heeren gained experience as a baby-sitter, a therapist, and an aide, and she thought about returning to college to become a special education teacher. Her love of event videography led her back into video work instead, but Heeren thought, "Maybe one day I'll do videos for autism."
     Shortly thereafter, Heeren married a sailor in the U. S. Navy. When her husband was sent overseas, Heeren moved back to New York, where she started Lighthouse Studios and raised their baby boy. In March 2002, when their son was two-and-a-half, he was diagnosed with autism.
     Through the internet Heeren found that there were conferences that could provide information she wanted for her son, but she couldn't afford the travel costs and conference fees. Volunteer videography provided a solution that benefited her and the autism groups. "I called up the organizers and asked if I could attend for free," Heeren says. "In return they would get photos and video of their event. It was a win-win situation for everyone. I was able to go and get information for my son and myself, and they got footage."
     Volunteer videography is changing lives through projects ranging from school plays to international ministries. Videographers are donating their time and talent, sometimes for the cost of materials and expenses, other times for no money at all. Though these volunteer efforts lack direct monetary reward, the volunteers find professional benefits that advance their careers and heighten their stature in unexpected ways. I spoke with four volunteers who talked about their experiences and gave advice about doing volunteer videography.

Sometimes it's Personal
For Christine Heeren, the biggest benefit of volunteer videography has been the ability to support a cause that has great personal significance for her. She has filmed press conferences, protests, rallies, and meetings that no one else has recorded. Footage Heeren shot of a Washington, D. C., rally was included in a story about autism on NBC's Dateline, and her photos of the event were published in Mothering magazine, Autism Perspective magazine, and a medical journal.

"I have been able to document the movement to make vaccines safer and improve the lives of people with autism, so it's been really worthwhile." Heeren says. "I've also produced a couple of educational videos that I sell at cost to schools and nonprofits all around the country. My videos have been shown to educate people about autism and raise money for various charities."

Heeren has made valuable contacts as well. "It has allowed me unique access to a lot of people and events. For example, I volunteer for my local democratic committee," says Heeren. "I've had the opportunity to meet Senators Clinton and Schumer, New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, in addition to many of the local politicians. Volunteering my time has enabled me to form relationships with politicians and their staff. Just the other day a state assemblyperson saw me at an event and asked for my help on an autism issue. That would not have happened had I not been there shooting."

Across the Borderline
People like Heeren dedicate huge amounts of their time to volunteer work, but even occasional efforts can have a big impact. John Goolsby of Riverside, California-based Cannon Video Productions says with characteristic modesty, "I work for ministries and sometimes I work for money, so it's not like I'm the world's greatest volunteer."

John Goolsby of Cannon Video

Goolsby's volunteer work began simply by putting together a highlight video of footage that a group of dentists had shot on a trip through an organization called Power Ministries. Power Ministries helps Mexican residents who come to the Texas border in search of a better life. "Thousands of these people end up living in cardboard shacks on the Mexican side of the border," Goolsby says. "Several ministries have set up along the Texas side of the border, and they go over and feed them and clothe them, and teach them, and set them up with businesses."

Goolsby's pastor showed the video for Power Ministries in church and it helped raise $35,000, but the videographer wasn't satisfied with the results. "The footage was really challenging," Goolsby says. "It was tough putting it together." The next year, when another trip to Mexico was planned, the pastor invited Goolsby to travel with the group to film the footage himself.

The group chose three people to profile for the video. One was a 14-year-old boy who had been abandoned by his family. "He was a sharp kid, and so what this ministry did was set him up with a little mini-market there in Reynosa, Mexico," John recalls. "He was running a little store all by himself, living in it and selling goods and making a living." Goolsby's video also profiled a girl named Sonja. Sonja broke both of her legs trying to cross the border. "The border patrol picked her up," Goolsby says. "But instead of taking her back to Mexico, they carried her to the mission she was trying to get to for food. Now she works in that mission helping other people."

Filming Sonja's story made Goolsby realize how big of an impact his volunteer work was having. "It was like everyone who gave a nickel to this cause had a supporting part in what happened," he says. "Because of contributions, the mission was able to help people like her. Now Sonja is turning around and helping hundreds and hundreds of other people, and who knows how many of those people will help other people. Then it hit me. I thought, ‘Wait a minute. I did something for this ministry. I put that video together and helped them raise money.' It was a reward I wasn't looking for or expecting, and it was overwhelming. I made a contribution that indirectly is going to affect hundreds of people."

The third person profiled in Goolsby's video was a Bible college student whose education had been underwritten by the ministry. "He was going to be a pastor in Tijuana and he had an incredible singing voice," Goolsby says. "So we recorded him singing a song there and then we did a music video to the song. When we got back to Riverside, California, and had 3,000 people at this church, we played the video. They were watching this young pastor singing on the screen, and then we hit him with a spotlight. We had actually flown him to Riverside so he could be there that morning.

"It was the neatest moment I've ever had in church, because people were doing a double-take," Goolsby continues. "Because we all see fundraising efforts for different parts of the world, it's very easy to pretend it's not real, but here was the guy in the flesh. He was walking through the audience and shaking hands. And they raised over $200,000 that morning."

Choose Your Cause
Doing videography for a charity project that can affect hundreds of people's lives can be very different from typical event videography work, which focuses on recording memories for a select group of people. Allan Block, a recipient of WEVA's 911 Community Service Award in 2005, says, "It's not like a wedding. You have six or seven, or maybe ten minutes at the most to deliver a very, very important message."

Allan and his wife Donna own On Location Video in Minnesota. They work on three to five volunteer projects a year. "You have to pick and choose what best fits your philosophy of life," Block says. "I do a lot of work for an organization called the Jewish Family and Children's Service. They have a Big Brothers/Big Sisters program, an older adults program, and a mental health program. And it's not just for Jewish people; it's for the community at large. They do a tremendous job of helping people, and it's very gratifying." Block does two volunteer projects for them each year: a profile of the volunteer of the year for their Spirit Award ceremony in June, and a video featuring a headline or a topic for their annual fundraiser in December. That was how he first became involved in volunteer videography, and soon other organizations were contacting him for help.

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Allan and Donna Block of On Location Video

When working for charity, Block says that content is more important than special effects. "All of the fancy effects are great for us, as editors, because we want to push the envelope and do the best work we can, but in the end it's content that is going to get the message across."

Know Your Audience
An important part of delivering that message is understanding the organization's target audience. An excellent example is John Goolsby's success with Set Free Prison Ministries. A pastor who was the father of the bride for a wedding John filmed asked Goolsby to look at a slideshow that a group called Set Free Prison Ministries was taking to churches each Sunday for fundraising. Goolsby watched the slideshow and saw the problem: it was boring because it didn't answer the questions that were important to the audience: "What do I get from your ministry?" and "What do I get by giving money to your cause?" The pastor didn't have the answers to those questions, so he and Goolsby started doing some research.

"That's when we discovered that in the United States we have over a million people in jail or prison and we are paying $35,000 a year to house each one of them," he says. "It's even higher than that now. So an incredible amount of money is being spent on housing prisoners. And the government is really bad at rehabilitating people. We discovered that 9 out of 10 people in jail would be on the street in three years, 7 out of 10 in one year. And they are going to commit another crime and be arrested again. But if an inmate goes through a prison ministry, he is 11 times less likely to ever be arrested again. So let's say you don't believe in God, you don't believe in church, you don't believe in any of that stuff, but you still believe in safety. I said, ‘Let's go to the toughest jail and videotape all of this, and let's point out that these people are going to be your neighbors in 12 months. Do you want them coming out with the current situation, or do you want to have some impact, like with a prison ministry?"

Goolsby went to the Cook County Jail in Chicago and spent two days filming. It was a trying experience. "They have holding cells in the basement of Cook County that look just like a dog pound," he recalls. "They just have a chain-link fence and they hoard everyone in there. And I was in there with them. It was really tough."

But that experience could hardly compare to the next prison Goolsby filmed. After the success that Set Free Prison Ministries had with the Cook County Jail video, they expanded their prison ministry into Russia.

Goolsby traveled to Moscow and spent nine days working in Butyrka prison. "Butyrka is a 200-year-old prison that was designed for a thousand inmates," he says, "but they have 7,000 in there: men, women, death row, psychiatric, everything. When I first got there, they opened up this closet, and nine women came out, and they were all covering their eyes because they had been in total darkness for a long time. It was a holding cell, but it was only one meter square and they had shoved nine women in there as they had moved people around." Goolsby went into another cell that contained ten bunk beds and 100 men. "They have to stand in shifts because they can't all sit down at the same time," he recalls. "And cell discipline is determined by the cell leader. They just elect themselves. It is about as tough an environment as you can imagine."

The Russian government wasn't supplying the prisoners with even basic necessities. "They don't provide anything to you," he says. "They don't provide clothing or a toothbrush or toothpaste or anything. So Set Free Prison Ministries brings all of these things in. They teach them Bible courses, they pray with them, and they clothe them. As we were going through and videotaping, the guards were very welcoming towards the ministry, but they also pointed out that two years earlier we would have been arrested for even trying anything like this."

Into the Fire
Christine Heeren's advice to other videographers is to find something that's meaningful to them before committing to do volunteer work in any particular area. "If your heart's not in it and you're there for the wrong reasons, you're not going to enjoy it and it's not going to be beneficial for anybody," she says. "So pick something that's interesting to you. If you had a grandmother who died from cancer, work for the cancer society. If your neighbor's kid has MS, do something for MS. Do something that you have a connection to, because you'll care about it, you'll put more effort into it, and you'll find the meaning in it."

John Weppler found a way to connect with something that was important to his family. His father, three of his uncles, and some of his cousins were New York City firefighters. But when Weppler was old enough to become a firefighter, his father didn't allow him to take the test. "My father said, ‘No. You're going to college. You're not going to be a fireman.'" Weppler majored in film and theater and became an event videographer and the owner of Premiere Video Productions on Long Island.

When terrorists attacked the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, 342 firefighters lost their lives. Weppler wanted to do something, so he offered to do a montage for one of the families that he knew. The family asked him if he would also film the funeral. John knew it would be an emotionally difficult task, but he did it and charged nothing. "We did that and the next thing you know I got a call from a lieutenant, and then I have the fire department calling me, and then before I knew it I was hiring other shooters to go out and shoot these funerals."

Weppler did the funerals for free. "The whole time they kept trying to give me money, and I said, ‘No. I'm not going to be able to take a dime from these families.' The only one I ever got money from was the last one I had done, and that was because I had to hire people I didn't even know to do the cabling and everything, and they knew all of the safety regulations to run it across the street and up the poles and everything. I told the fire department, and they paid for that. They had funds set aside for that."

The funerals occurred over several months because some of the families waited to find out if the remains of their loved ones would be found. "Things fell behind with the company for a few months. A lot of editing didn't get done because the funerals were mostly done in the week and basically you would spend two or three days going into Manhattan. And that meant getting home at six or seven at night, if this would be a nine o'clock funeral. And of course you would leave at six to go to Manhattan."

It was the emotional toll that eventually got to Weppler. "I just kept doing them every week and between montages and the funerals, by April of 2002 it got to the point where I just couldn't do it anymore." He told one of the lieutenants, "I can't watch another nine-year-old eulogize their father. It's very difficult because I would see cousins and uncles in the bagpipe band and I would see firemen I knew and it was just a very difficult time when you get that close to it. I'd go back to the firehouse after the funeral or something and the firemen would be so distraught. It's just too unbearable."

Weppler stopped doing the firefighter funerals in April, but he found it tough to say no. In June he was finally convinced to do one more.

"They never recovered the body, so finally the family decided to go ahead and have the funeral service," he says. The family called Weppler. "Three-thousand people attended, and we had to go in with the crew the day before and set up a three-camera feed and run a whole line across the street into a huge auditorium because they would not be able to fit everyone into the church.

"The police department came in to do a sweep just as Mayor Giuliani was coming in, before the ceremony actually started. One of the police lieutenants came over and said, ‘You can't be here,' because I was positioned up at the front. And what was funny, I had seen Giuliani so many times, he came walking in with his entourage and said, ‘No, no. He's good. He can stay. He's OK.' He came over and shook my hand and gave me a hug and said, ‘We've got to stop meeting like this, John.' And, you know, it's just one of those moments."

The funeral procession is a powerful memory for Weppler. "I don't know how to describe it," he says. "It's so quiet outside while you're waiting, and then all of a sudden you just hear the beating of the snare drums slowly, and that pace, and you slowly see the truck and the firemen coming over the hill. This one was incredible because the streets were just lined. You couldn't even see anything. And then all of a sudden you see the cherry-picker and another truck come over the hill carrying the coffin. Even today, when I think about it, I can sit down and watch one of the videos and lose it for an hour."

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"Even today, when I think about it, I can sit down and watch one of the [firefighter funeral] videos and lose it for an hour."--John Weppler, Premiere Video

Good for Business?
One issue for any videographer doing volunteer work is how they will justify the time spent when they have their own businesses to maintain. In addition to covering his travel expenses, John Goolsby says Power Ministries has provided a wealth of contacts. "They build homes and they build churches and all sorts of things," he says. "These are the type of men that are good to know in business. Anytime I need a friend in any kind of industry, I have one."

Allan Block charges a small fee for his work to cover some of the expenses. "I charge very little, but I charge so that people don't take advantage of me," he says. "So they realize that my time is money and, although I am volunteering a great deal of my time, I am still being paid as a professional."

After years of doing volunteer video production for national and international autism groups, this work has become Christine Heeren's primary career. She does a mixture of paid and unpaid work. "Go into it knowing that you may never get a job or a dollar out of it," Heeren says, "and if you do, that's a nice surprise. Usually people can see your intent pretty quickly. A couple of years ago when I started doing the yearly fundraising video for a school with autistic children, I charged them a little over cost. The next year they said, ‘We want to pay you more,' because they saw the value in it. So now much of this work has become profitable and I've been able to showcase my talents as a videographer and editor."

Why Volunteer?
Volunteering can immerse you in the sad and tragic events in the world, but it can be about joy as well. There is the joy of helping people and making their lives better. "When I give of myself and volunteer, I always feel I get something back from it," Heeren says. "Sometimes it's with a paying job, other times it's the satisfaction of knowing I've helped a community. To be able to combine my two loves, my son and video production, gives me such a sense of purpose."

"We started the video business in '86," Goolsby says. "I had three kids under the age of five, and my wife and I used to share a vehicle between two jobs with 160,000 miles on it. Now I own five businesses here in town. I own an event planning showroom, an audiovisual rental company, and a wedding dress store. We have got quite a bit going on. We have had some tough times, and I feel like everything I have, God has allowed me to have. So if someone presents an opportunity that needs help, how can I say no?"

"I guess personally I just feel like I am giving back," says John Weppler. "I've been blessed with a wonderful family and a good company for 19 years . . . so, why not me? I don't like to say, ‘Somebody else will do that.' When I do it, it's nice to get a pat on the back, but I also get personal satisfaction: You took one for the team. We did one for the good guys, you know?"

"When you watch television like CNN and all the others, it's all about the bad stuff in the world—the killers and the criminals and the wars and everything else—but when we create a video, it's about the good things that are going on," says Allan Block. "It makes you feel good. And I have a wall full of thank-you notes—a literal wall full of thank-you notes. If I get depressed, or if I'm down, or I'm tired, or I'm working too hard, I look at that wall and I say, ‘You know, it's all worth it.'"

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