Lights, camera, hope: Kids in the Spotlight inspires foster youth to tell their stories

Kids in the Spotlight gives Los Angeles based foster youth the opportunity to enter the film industry as they write, direct and act in their own films, which, once edited, are shown on the big screen at their annual “Better than the Oscars” awards show.
Kids in the Spotlight gave their movie makers the chance to be at the center of the universe for the day as they watched their movies up on the big screen at Paramount Picture Studios.
Kids in the Spotlight gave their movie makers the chance to be at the center of the universe for the day as they watched their movies up on the big screen at Paramount Picture Studios.
Connor Ruckman

Which of the following statistics is true?

  1. There are nearly 437,000 children in foster care in the United States.
  2. For students in foster care, only 53 percent will graduate from high school on time.
  3. Nearly 100 times a day, a child in California is placed in foster care.
  4. Los Angeles has over 38,000 foster care youth. 

Correct answer? All of them.

Youth in foster care is a growing issue in California and in the United States as a whole. These statistics already seem dystopian, and they’re only increasing daily. 

Youth in foster care are constantly being told where to go, what to do and how to do it. But the nonprofit organization Kids in the Spotlight, or KITS for short, allows foster youth to call all the shots in their script-to-screen movie-making program for foster youth between ages 12 and 24. 

Originally founded in 2009 by casting director Tige Charity, KITS has grown tremendously in the past 14 years. In addition to the script-to-screen program, the company owns a recently-bought production studio in the heart of Van Nuys that not only serves as a filming location for the program’s films, but also as a rentable location for major film companies. 

The participating youth write, cast and star in their original short films, which are directed and produced by industry professionals. This nationally acclaimed program serves some of the 38,000 youth living in the Los Angeles County foster care system. 

The script-to-screen program provides classes in screenwriting, acting, casting and editing, helping foster youth heal and grow from trauma through the power of storytelling and filmmaking.

KITS board president Gregory D. Metzger works closely with the youth throughout the program, and watches as ideas for different short films are formed. 

“We go into group homes and work with this youth in our script-to-screen program and we ask them ‘what’s the story you want to tell?’” he said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean telling your story – we have silly movies as well as darker themes – but they are allowed to tell the world whatever they choose.”

After learning to create a movie concept and write their story, the three or four writers for each film host a casting audition.

“The kids do all the casting,” Metzger said. “They have complete agency over the film, and that’s something they don’t have a lot in their life, the ability to make every single choice. We have youth star in films as well as adults. We have open casting calls and the youth get to sit at the table and make the choices. And there are some roles that are super challenging and beyond their acting capabilities, so then we hire professionals.”

Within the program, the youth advance their acting capabilities as well. Metzger says that the five-week acting course the youth participate in teaches them teamwork, growth and empathy toward others. 

“The program is about working together and supporting each other through real teamwork,” he said. “We are helping the youth heal and grow through this, and we have found that we truly do.”

As the culmination of the program each year, KITS hosts an annual “Better than the Oscars” gala. This year, the annual gala was hosted at Paramount Picture Studios, where, for six hours, the youth and members of KITS got to walk the blue carpet, be interviewed and photographed by different news stations and finally watch the completed versions of the films they had worked so hard on.  

Over the years, as KITS has become more well-known, an increasing number of people have begun attending the event. 

Metzger has watched the program grow and seen just how many people, both inside and outside the foster system, KITS has affected.

“We are only with the youth two hours, twice a week, for 10 weeks, and yet grades go up, attitude goes up and morale goes up,” he said.

American actor James Pickens Jr., most well known for his role on the ABC show “Grey’s Anatomy,” is no stranger to the film and media industry, and knows just how powerful stories such as those from KITS can be. 

“KITS gives a platform for kids who come from extraordinary backgrounds and have had some extraordinary experiences to tell their stories,” Pickens said. “They take their experiences and transfer them to film in the form of amazing stories.”

In addition to the stories told within the ten-week script-to-screen program, KITS hosts an annual screenplay competition, wherein the winner gets their screenplay professionally shot, edited and shown at the awards. This year, competition winner Courtney P.D., who wrote her short film “Speak” based on her experience coming face to face with her intrusive thoughts, is proof that KITS helps dreams and realities come to life. 

“KITS showed me that I am capable of more than I ever thought,” she said. “I have always wanted to be in film in some way, shape or form but I never saw it as a true reality for myself. Through the program, I have learned not only that I can act in but write films as well.”

P.D. explained that an organization like KITS is incredibly important to the community because it provides what can only be described as the chance of a lifetime.

“A lot of time foster youth are shunned for their stories and told to not share them,” she said. “KITS brings a lot of healing to the foster community.”

Randal Wells, host of the Foster Tales podcast and a 2023 Jordan Award winner, which is given to an individual who has made an impact upon the world of foster care, explained that KITS not only provides such a wonderful and unique experience to foster youth overall, but it also provides unique resources not otherwise available to them.

“It gives us the tools and empowers us to create media and tell our own stories from our own perspective,” he said. “A lot of times people don’t ask for our input on our stories. So to see us work in all the different fields from camera operators to writers is such a unique and special experience.”

Growing up in Los Angeles, and attending performing arts schools my whole life, I’m no stranger to how hard it is to break into the industry, whether it be stage or screen. But for youth who have a hard enough time getting to school each day, the opportunities to enter the field of film becomes a tremendous challenge. 

Visionary Female Leader Jade Simmons, who entered the industry as a classical pianist several years ago, believes that KITS provides not only the access into the industry, but also the resources to attain their dreams therein. 

“We put so much trust in youth to follow their dreams, but we never really talk about how hard it can be to do so,” she said. “KITS is the living and breathing example of what it looks like to create the access and not just talk about it.”

Fellow program participant Lillian T., who wrote her own short film “Imperfect Stars,” agrees that KITS allows the youth involved to have a place in the industry and enter the world of filmmaking with knowledge they wouldn’t have otherwise. 

“KITS gives people a chance to learn about what it is to make a film, what it is to make a story and a place to share who they are with the rest of the world,” she said. 

A mutual emotion discussed in foster care, and frequently shown through KITS films, is invisibility. The event openly discussed how foster youth, whose lives are constantly being uprooted, often feel overlooked rather than seen.

Modern Family star Ty Burrell is and has been a very active supporter of KITS. Not only is Ty Burell a sponsor of the program, he often hosts the gala, and even has an award named after his father, Gary Burrell, who was a passionate social worker that dedicated his life to helping youth in foster care. 

Burrell said that he could talk about KITS and everything it does for the community for hours, stating that KITS impact stretches farther than one could ever see.

“Helping these kids who are often made to feel invisible, feel totally seen and at the center of the universe for the day is an experience I wish more people could partake in,” Burrell said. “During this gala, the youth are given the chance to be celebrated.”

Although he is quite the busy man, Burell always ensures he can work with KITS throughout the year, and never fails to attend the annual gala.

“This project is massive,” he said. “To write, produce, perform and edit, that’s hard for anyone to do, let alone someone who has as many obstacles in their way like these youth. This project is a way for them to earn self-esteem. These kids are also all introduced to jobs in the industry and shown that they are absolutely capable of getting real-world jobs. There is nothing they can’t do.”

With such a small percent of foster youth graduating from college, foster youth feel like attaining these real-world jobs is a distant dream, something that only occurs for one in a million. 

Yet Claudia Wells, who has served as a board member and ambassador for KITS since its founding in 2009, is always quick to assure youth that there is always hope for better opportunities in the future.

“All of us were made for great things whether we know it or not,” Wells said. “We don’t choose our families or the circumstances around us. The kind of circumstances we were born into and raised out of does not determine what our future is or what our lives become.”

After the viewing portion of the gala and a screening of the brand new KITS commercial Golden Ticket finished, annual awards were handed out. 

Just like the Oscars, awards were given for categories such as Best Actress, Best Actor and Best Film.

In an emotionally driven speech, Best Actor winner London J., who starred in the acclaimed short film “Unconditional,” tearfully explained that KITS provides opportunity, experience and love that is unmatchable.

“Being a part of KITS, the amount of opportunities that have been given to me just by giving it my all, makes me realize how much of an opportunity KITS brings you,” he said.” I’m telling you right now that the amount of love KITS has is unmatchable.

“Three years ago, I didn’t see myself doing anything near what I’m doing now,” he continued, cheered on by the audience after briefly pausing to collect himself. “To be here and to have new friends, new families and a new environment around me, plus the chances to do what I am doing every single day, is just a blessing.”

After all the youth filled onto the stage for group pictures, they chanted the KITS motto three times. Their voices echoed throughout the room, each louder than the previous: “I can do great things because I was born to do great things.”

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About the Contributor
Madison Thacker
Madison Thacker, Arts/Entertainment Editor
Madison Thacker is junior who's embarking on her first year in journalism. Her journey through the performing arts started at just 5 years old, and today, she's ever-present in the performing arts magnet at VNHS. Beyond the spotlight, Madison has dedicated over eight years to the Girl Scouts, earning both bronze and silver awards for her commitment. As high school nears its end, Madison's plans point to a UC education, where she plans to major in education and minor in child development, shaping young minds for a brighter future.
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