ZIONSVILLE, Ind. (WISH) – March is Developmental Disability Awareness Month and many families may be frightened the first moment they learn they will have a child with a disability. Zionsville mother Valerie Strohl was in that situation 18 years ago with the birth of her daughter, Sarah.
“Sarah, our youngest daughter, was born with Down Syndrome,” says Strohl. “We found out several minutes after she was born. I do remember laying there thinking about that and like ‘oh no, this cannot be.'”
Strohl’s honesty about the despair she felt with her daughter’s birth only makes her story of courage and creativity more inspiring. Over the years, Strohl transformed her point of view from that of a hesitant mother to a staunch advocate for children with special needs. Her efforts to help her daughter gave birth to a major media company that is changing the lives of other kids in the Zionsville community.
United Media Now, Strohl’s media production company, was initially just the name of the blog she started in 2007. She used it as a way to vent her frustrations with public policy on children with disabilities. But in 2012, Strohl had a culinary stroke of genius to make the concept of United Media Now much bigger.
“At the time [Zionsville Schools] was doing everything they could possibly think of to help [Sarah], so she did half days and I home-schooled her,” says Strohl. “So, we would use cooking as math.”
Strohl began to see how much the act of cooking helped Sarah understand sequences – especially important when following recipes – as well as building arm strength through stirring. Those daily lessons in the kitchen morphed into Valerie’s idea to create a cooking show they would title Sarah’s Great Day. Slowly, Sarah’s speech began to improve when she was in front of the camera.
“I think she’s proud of herself,” says Strohl of her daughter. “Being on camera is not for everybody and my point was to demonstrate how capable kids are with disabilities.”
Cooking up a company
Initially, Valerie hired a local production company to produce a few episodes. The cost was too high for her to pay out of pocket, so she went back to the drawing board and came up with the idea to produce the videos on her own.
“We started with a camcorder on a tripod and some cheap lights from Amazon,” says Strohl. “We had no sound, so the first episodes are really bad, and then we just kept growing.”
The first episodes – and the more than fifty that have been produced since – would not have been possible without the help of Zionsville Community Schools Superintendent, Dr. Scott Robison. Strohl set up a meeting with him to ask if he would help find students to work on her videos.
“When she was talking to me about a fledgling production she was doing, Sarah’s Great Day, she obviously had a vision for how this was going to work,” says Robison. “So, I went to the high school principal and said ‘could we find some kids who are into digital video and audio and see if they’d want to help?'”
That request netted Valerie more than she bargained for with two knowledgeable local students interested in video production. Over the last three years, ten students have become involved in the operation.
The turning point
In the early days of 2014, Valerie was able to secure sponsorships through Tangram and Noble of Indiana which allowed her to produce Sarah’s Great Day and slowly improve the video quality by purchasing audio equipment, but the turning point came in October 2014 when Sarah received the Entrepreneurship Award from The Arc of Indiana, which included a $10,000 check. Finally, the team producing Sarah’s Great Day was able to graduate to using HD cameras, better sound equipment, lighting instruments and a 27” Apple computer to better edit the video.
The money also allowed Valerie to begin paying her student workers between $10 and $20 an hour for their time on set and the hours spent editing videos. Valerie could now employ three people on the day of each shoot for Sarah’s Great Day.
With better video quality, Valerie was being asked to produce videos for local non-profit organizations. Eventually, it led to a serendipitous meeting with local food advocate and blogger Lori Taylor, better known as The Produce Mom.
“Lori really took a chance on us,” says Strohl, who was asked to produce 70 videos for Taylor’s website and social media platforms in 2016 alone. Each video would use seasonal produce in creative recipes to highlight agricultural producers sponsoring The Produce Mom.
Immediately, Valerie and her young team were producing videos to highlight multi-million and multi-billion dollar agriculture companies who sponsor Taylor. Strohl says those 70 videos were viewed 2.4 million times and reached 10,000,000 users on Facebook in 2016 alone.
The long-term impact
The experience with United Media Now has proved invaluable for Zionsville High School 11th grader Alex Paul who is now considering a career in media.
“I’ll probably go into like film school or something like that in my future,” says Paul who currently runs the lead camera, serves as shoot manager and edits every video for Sarah’s Great Day. When he started working for Valerie in 2016, he did not have his driver’s license.
Since Valerie’s initial meeting with Superintendent Dr. Robison, the Zionsville District has begun to now allow work study credit for high school students working with United Media Now. Students can either opt for the hourly wage or to receive one credit hour per semester, for a maximum of two semesters.
“I don’t see us developing a radio and TV program,” says Robison. “So, certainly fostering opportunities for kids who are very digitally inclined and making opportunities like this one happen is the right thing to do.”
Robison and Strohl both pointed to this opportunity as being unique in the fact that it started because of a desire to help a child with disabilities and now includes regularly developing kids the same age. Often times, strides to include children with disabilities begin the other way around and are slow to include kids with special needs.
“If I can change the way people see people with disabilities and I can do it in a fun format — which is a cooking show – that will change culture and the way people perceive people with special needs,” says Strohl.