For SMPA students, the winner’s circle awaits

Receiving an A on a paper or test may be the highest level of achievement for many students, but for senior Victoria Riess, senior Mark Abramson and sophomore Haley Lesavoy, national recognition and a Beverly Hills gala are the upcoming events on the horizon.

This May, the trio will be honored at the 2010 Gracie Awards – alongside media personalities such as NBC News Correspondent Andrea Mitchell and television host Martha Stewart – for their project, “Engage, Enlighten, Educate.” The mini-documentary, which highlights the importance of environmental education in elementary schools, is up to receive a Gracie for Outstanding Soft News Feature.

The film originated as a project for Planet Forward, a venture of students in GW’s School of Media and Public Affairs, before it caught the attention of the Alliance of Women in Media, which runs the Gracie Awards each year. Formerly known as American Women in Radio and Television, the organization acts as a resource to educate members about current events in the industry, the goal being to enhance the influence of women in media.

In creating “Engage, Enlighten, Educate,” Riess, Abramson and Lesavoy aimed to produce a feature that would educate children on effective ways to reduce their carbon footprints. First they contacted Casey Trees, a local nonprofit organization that works to restore the vitality of the District’s tree canopy in places where it is lacking – a mission that fit in with the central message of their project.

After bringing that organization on board, the three students sought out subjects for their mini-documentary. They did not have to turn far, finding willing participants at the Peabody Elementary School, located in Northeast D.C. Together with the Casey Trees staff, they taught the children how to plant trees and reduce carbon emissions – and got it all on tape.

The project might seem like an easy one to complete, but Riess said that the group encountered a formidable challenge along the way: communicating the message within the constraints of a two to three-minute timeframe without becoming overly technical.

“How do we tell our story in a simplistic way? How do we tell the story without getting caught up in the statistics? We were told that for children to grow up into adults who are concerned about our environment, they need to have mentors in their lives and hands-on experience,” Riess said.

The three students divided the work according to each one’s specialty. Abramson contributed the visual aspects of the documentary, combining pictures of the children planting trees with commentary from Dr. Jay Shotel, a professor of special education at GW, and Lacey Brown, the education coordinator for Casey Trees.

“I’ve learned how you craft certain moving images and how it plays out with sound. I’ve learned how to tell a better story, and I’ve become a better visual storyteller. It’s just how I see things is how I work – through images,” Abramson said.

Lesavoy said she was pleased to see the feature receive the award, though she had not expected anything like this to happen.

“It’s great to see our work honored and recognized. Everyone would hope to get some recognition for his or her work, but I didn’t really expect it. We just wanted to create a story that was relatable and interesting,” Lesavoy said.

Working on the project has also brought the three students closer together. Abramson said that had it not been for Lesavoy and Riess, he did not know if the documentary would have come to fruition.

“I don’t think it would have been possible without the three of us working together. I don’t think that if one of us was missing we could have accomplished this. I think of [Riess and Lesavoy] as sisters. I was really fortunate to work with them.”

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