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Growing up in Oregon, Ty Burrell remembers his dad’s career as a social worker and the impact it had on him. “He was a caseworker in the foster care system,” says the actor. “He did not give details, but I was well aware of how challenging the system was and how hard it can be on the kids. That was always his point of view at the dinner table — figure out what’s best for the kids.”
Burrell’s dad, who also worked as a family therapist in the foster-care system, died in 1989. Years later, “I had been looking for something in that area to be involved in [philanthropically],” says Burrell. His awareness of the challenges faced by children in the foster-care system — only 3 percent of kids who age out of foster care, for example, earn a college degree — led him to become the celebrity ambassador of KITS (Kids in the Spotlight) a few years ago.
Over the last 11 years, the Burbank-based group, founded by Tige Charity, has worked with hundreds of foster youth on 10-week filmmaking and screenwriting courses, creating 75 short films. “Tige’s point of view is so holistic. I find it works on so many different levels. The kids who come through just do so much better,” says the actor, who won two Emmys during his 11-year run as Phil Dunphy on Modern Family.
Now, titles created by KITS’ foster youth filmmakers are gaining a new platform. On Dec. 18, IndieFlix, the on-demand streaming service focusing on independent film, launched a dedicated Foster Films Channel showcasing 15 short films from the program, with all 75 to be added over coming weeks. “I’m just so pleased and thrilled that IndieFlix has decided to choose Kids in the Spotlight. Everybody involved with KITS is really grateful,” says Burrell.
Among the first short films featured on IndieFlix are Heaven’s Hard Pitches (a look at family reunification), Love Just Is (about three siblings learning to show appreciation to their mother) and Cyverius (about two young scientists on an intergalactic mission to save humanity from a pandemic). “We stand by our belief that film is the most powerful medium to change lives and change the world. It was a natural fit for us to ‘adopt’ the initial 75 titles into our library of content with a purpose,” said Scilla Andree, CEO and co-founder of IndieFlix (which has more than 4,000 titles), in a statement.
Burrell, who originally connected with KITS through one of the members of its advisory board, Tamesha Scott, has consistently been impressed by how the organization — whose instructors are specialists in screenwriting, acting and editing — empowers the youth it works with.
“It’s filmmaking, but it ends up being a lot more,” he says. ‘These are kids who feel marginalized at best and often just invisible. KITS is a group that is saying, ‘We want to hear what you have to say. We want to hear your story.’ The kids write their story with mentors, they cast it, they perform it. They have this huge project that they are being counted on to finish. I really believe that there’s kind of a self-esteem that comes from that. I really see that in the kids when they finish a film. There’s an incredible pride and sense of self-respect.”
He adds that there’s a vocationalist aspect to KITS as well. “They are surrounded by real industry professionals, they are seeing it done at a very high level, and they are exposed to all of those different trades in the filmmaking process. Some of them might get interested in lighting or hair and makeup or directing or even things like carpentry,” says the actor, who notes that two youth who participated in the program went on to become assistants at the talent agency, ICM Partners, which represents him. “I think the program Tige created is extraordinary.” That sort of success can often be something hard to attain for kids who have been in the foster care system, he adds. “More than 70 percent of people in the prison system have been through the foster care system. It’s staggering,” says Burrell.
Burrell — who has relocated to Salt Lake City, Utah, during the COVID pandemic (“It’s a very low-key place,” he says) — is currently voicing a role on Fox’s animated series Duncanville, co-starring Amy Poehler and Rashida Jones. “It has been a blast. We haven’t stopped production through the pandemic,” says the actor, who also launched a production company, Desert Whale Productions, with 20th Century Fox TV (now 20th Television) in June. He’s also enjoying having extra time this year at home with his family. “I’m able to spend time with my daughters who are 10 and 8,” he says.
He’s also brightened by the fact that the IndieFlix partnership will not only bring visibility to KITS but also funding. “The amount of viewership is directly correlated to contributions to KITS.” says the actor, noting that any money raised will be immensely appreciated. “It’s an organization that has been working with a shoestring budget.”
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