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SHERMAN OAKS : Disabled Youths Visit Theater for 1st Time

It wasn’t an invitation-only sneak preview of the latest blockbuster, but for the children entranced by the 10:45 a.m. screening of “Free Willy” at the Sherman Oaks Galleria, it was better.

It was their first trip to a movie theater for many.

“It was pretty cool,” said first-time moviegoer Jose Chavez, 8. “I think I’ll go again.”

Chavez was one of about 60 disabled children from several San Fernando Valley elementary schools who took part in the field trip arranged by Dixie Canyon Elementary School Principal Melanie Deutsch.

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After discussing movies with many of her summer school students, who are autistic, severely physically handicapped or emotionally disturbed, Deutsch realized that many had never been to a movie theater.

So Deutsch, affectionately deemed “the grand mooch” by colleagues for her ability to drum up freebies for her students, made some calls.

“I just picked up the phone and started calling lots of people. And for the most part, nobody said no,” Deutsch said.

In four days she came up with tickets donated by the theater and production company, and snacks from two fast-food restaurants. Without donations, Deutsch said the trip would not have been possible.

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“With financial times so tough, it’s nice to know that people in the community support these kids.”

The effort did not go unnoticed by the students, who seemed to relate to the tale of a killer whale separated from his family by greedy theme park bosses, and of the ragtag boy who tries to free him.

“I was about to cry,” said 7-year-old Marcos Lopez, referring to a scene when “Willy” was nearing death. “He wanted to be with his family.”

Teachers in the audience said they almost cried too, but for different reasons.

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“You don’t get much for being a teacher,” said Sue Babit. “But just watching these kids . . . these are the kind of days that make it worth it.”


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