Good teachers motivate students to aim high. Great teachers steer them toward unusual heights. And one Michigan football coach and special education teacher guided his kids to reach, quite literally, for the stars.
Mike Kersjes decided that his class of disabled students, as they were classified in 1988, should attend NASA Space Camp. The story of his quest is told in the Hallmark Hall of Fame movie "A Smile as Big as the Moon" Sunday, Jan. 29, on ABC.
For anyone who has ever nursed an implausible dream or who knows a special needs student, this is an inspiring film. Actually, if it doesn't move viewers to at least mist up, those viewers likely aren't worth knowing.
The film's message, Kersjes says, is "teamwork makes the dream work. When I first started reaching out I could tell they didn't even know what teamwork was. They were institutionalized as individuals as to what they cannot achieve rather than what they can achieve."
Kersjes assembled a team to help the students. They learned practical skills such as swimming and more obscure ones such as operating control panels on rockets during a simulated landing.
John Corbett ("Sex and the City"), as Kersjes, portrays a tireless man lobbying the powers at NASA and learning how to raise funds. Taking this high-school class of kids whose problems ran the gamut to such a lofty program traditionally reserved for gifted and talented students seemed impossible.
"The message of the movie is anything is possible if you just try and you want it," Corbett says. "You can achieve your goals. You can reach for the stars, and anything is possible.
"It is a good representation of how hard those kids worked," Corbett continues. "They were bullied by the other kids in the school. They hunkered down and focused."
Such focus and drive would benefit most people, Corbett says. "I have a lot of buddies that things aren't happening for them right now, whether in the entertainment business or the construction business. And I just know from being out of work more than I work, what I need to make stuff happen for myself."
Peter ten Brink, who has Down syndrome, plays Ben, a student who had the original idea about space camp. Brink, 19, says attending such a cool camp would have been wonderful because "it's like a science fair, and I enjoy being surrounded by science."
Corbett says Brink "brought a lot of light and energy to the set every day."
Other members of the cast also have special needs, reflecting the class Kersjes taught. The film does a solid job of showing how these students were stuck in the least desirable classroom and how other teens constantly taunted them.
Shot on location in Wilmington, N.C., and at the camp at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., the film captures how each student has a special gift that helped them achieve the program's tough goals. One boy who has difficulty curbing his rage is a terrific artist, and one of the challenges at camp was to design an arm patch for the uniforms.
Since Kersjes initially decided to take that giant leap, some 6,500 disabled students have attended Space Camp. What Kersjes is proudest of, he says, is "these 20 kids believed in me enough that when I told them this would open the doors or close the doors for so many special needs kids based on our performance, they bought into it and did it," he says. "And since 1989, the doors have been wide open for special needs to go to space camp like any other kid in this country."