At camp the summer before she began eighth grade, Alexandra Jackman met Jamie, a fellow camper, who has cerebral palsy.
At first, Alexandra — a Westfield resident — was nervous about getting to know someone who seemed so “different.” But determined to overcome her anxiety, she initiated contact with Jamie, and they became good friends.
That experience impelled Alexandra, now 16 and a rising senior at Westfield High School, to undertake efforts to encourage fellow able-bodied teens to relate to peers who have special needs, and she has focused her efforts on people with autism. Building on her connection with Jamie, she created a 14-minute documentary, A Teen’s Guide to Understanding and Communicating with People with Autism.
Since its release in 2012, her film has won awards at 10 film festivals, including the World Humanitarian Film Festival and the Queens International Film Festival.
Then, on July 20, Alexandra was named one of 14 winners of the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award from the Helen Diller Family Foundation of San Francisco, an agency of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties.
The awards are presented to Jewish teens who embody what the foundation calls “the spirit of tikun olam, a central Jewish value meaning to repair the world.”
She and the other 13 winners will receive the honor — which comes with an award of $34,000 each — at a luncheon on Monday, Aug. 22, in San Francisco, the home base of the Diller Foundation.
Ever since her encounter with Jamie at camp at Tyler Place Family Resort in Vermont, Alexandra has dedicated herself to befriending and advocating for people with special needs. Her advocacy began when she contacted a group called Autism Family Times to increase her understanding of the condition. It led to her working on her video, which cleverly explains the ways autism affects different people.
“In my school, a lot of people were ignoring peers with autism — not to be mean but because they didn’t understand what was different. I wanted to change that,” she said.
Armed with an iPad, Alexandra spent eight months shooting and editing her documentary. A Teen’s Guide has been shown at film festivals as far from home as Guam and Jakarta, Indonesia, and is available on YouTube at youtube.com/watch?v=p9-l19CKISg.
She interviewed schoolmates with and without autism, teachers, and an expert in special needs education. But one of her video’s most poignant moments comes when she addresses the camera and says, “The person you may ignore or make fun of is actually a person who has feelings and deserves to be treated fairly and could be someone you would really like.”
She and her family — parents Michael and Lisa and her 14-year-old brother Samuel — are members of Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, where she has put her knowledge and skills to use by helping a boy with autism prepare to become bar mitzva. “I’ve helped him to learn prayers and feel comfortable in a classroom. It is really a special experience,” she told NJJN.
Alexandra expects to make her teenage interest and dedication the center of her life’s work. “I want to keep promoting the video and the Spanish version I translated, which is also on YouTube. I also want to be working with people with autism and continue my advocacy work for acceptance and awareness on a national and international level.”
Asked whether she had advice for other teens, Alexandra said, “You are never too young to make a difference and to help people and to speak out about what you are passionate about. You should learn about different types of people and try to be as accepting as you can.
“You would want people to do the same for you.”