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The Independent Critic

 Conversations From A "Little Red Wagon" 
Birthed out of The Philanthropy Project, a Templeton Foundation funded program designed to inspire people from all walks of life to become philanthropists and to make a difference in the world, "Little Red Wagon" is the story of Zach Bonner, who at the age of six was inspired by scenes of devastation caused by Hurricane Charley to take his little red wagon around his own neighborhood, which had barely been spared the devastation, and to collect life-changing goods for those whose homes had been destroyed. This experience only fueled his desire to make a difference in the world and, despite quite a few obstacles, he founded the Little Red Wagon Foundation and became relentlessly devoted to helping homeless children through the creation of his "Zach Packs" and a variety of awareness events including, just last year, a walk across America. "Little Red Wagon" had its world premiere at the 2011 Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis, and The Independent Critic spent some time with the cast and crew prior to its first screening. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Can you kind of tell me how all of this got started?

ZACH BONNER

It was back in 2004 when Hurricane Charley hit. We were listening to radio and they were talking about families who had lost everything. I started thinking about what I could do and what we could give to help them, and then I thought that other families in the neighborhood might want to help out. It just grew from there. It took about 3-4 months total. We branched out to other communities and subdivisions. We collected about 27 truckloads of water and other items for the victims. I had such a great time doing it that I decided I wanted to make community service work a permanent part of my life. After that project, I came up with the idea of the Little Red Wagon Foundation.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

How did you come with that idea? It's one thing to do a project, but as a child to come up with this idea of starting an actual organization is pretty amazing.

ZACH BONNER

The reasons we started the 501c3 was that in order for corporations to give donations we really needed that tax exempt status. It also helps people take you more seriously. At the time, there were a lot of really good organizations helping people. They were limited as to the ways they were allowed to use their resources. They couldn't use them to do many fun things for the kids. I wanted to show these kids that somebody was out there who cared about them, not just taking care of their basic needs but also as kids.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

It's my understanding that the "Zach Packs," backpacks you created for homeless children, have also always included a toy for every child who receives one?

ZACH BONNER

That's right. There's a story of a boy who was one of the first kids to receive a "Zach Pack." The organization that we were working with at the time to distribute these backpacks said that they'd been working with this boy for six months. When they gave him the "Zach Pack," he was going through it and pulling out the food and the life necessities. When he got to the candy pack and the toy, his eyes just lit up. That was the first time they'd seen him smile in the six months they'd been working with him. He said that was the first toy he'd gotten since his parents died that led to his moving in with his grandparents and got into an abusive situation with them.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

What inspired you to do the walk?

ZACH BONNER

I originally got the idea for the walk after watching a documentary on a woman whose name was Peace Pilgrim. She walked over 25,000 miles for world peace. I really liked the idea of a walk. It's very simple and grassroots.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

How did the idea for the film come about?

ZACH BONNER

It was right after our second walk, I think. They sent a request for information. It was right after a walk, and we were getting all these requests for information. We sent some to them. They kept coming back asking for more and more information. At one point, they asked for some references. We didn't really know what was going on. We gave them some names of people that we had worked with who knew the foundation. One of them came back after they'd spoken to them on the phone and said "I think they want to make a movie about you." We were like "No, no." A little bit later they were "Yes, we do want to make a movie about you. We're looking for an American philanthropist to make a movie about." At that time, I think were were 9 or 11 other stories. They were trying to narrow it down to one. Then, Dr. Guillen (Little Red Wagon producer) wanted to come down and meet us. We met, had dinner and that's when he said "We want to make a movie about you." It took almost exactly three years.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

And you're still doing your projects. How does it feel to have your story coming to life in a film?

ZACH BONNER

It's really exciting now that it's happening. I hope that a lot of people will come out and see it and that it will do really well and inspire others, especially kids, and teach them that no matter how young you are you can go out and make a difference at any age whether it's with homeless kids or animals or anything that they feel passionate about.

As I was sitting there watching the festivities and admiring the family like atmosphere of one of multiple outreaches being conducted by the cast and crew of "Little Red Wagon" during their time in Indy, producer Dr. Michael Guillen came up to me and shared some exciting news.

DR. MICHAEL GUILLEN

Representatives from Office Depot Foundation just arrived. They're donating 100 "Zach Packs" to Zach's foundation for 100 homeless children. These are wonderful packs that Zach will then fill with all the essentials - socks, food, a toy and each one of these will go to a homeless child. This is the rubber meeting the road. This is what Zach is all about. This is what he does day in and day out... helping homeless children who have been discarded by society. That's what our movie's all about...raising awareness about this cause.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

So, you're making a difference right here, right now.

DR. MICHAEL GUILLEN

Right here, right now. We're debuting our movie in Indianapolis, because when we were making this movie I always thought that Zach represents the heart and soul of America. He represents the virtues of America ... generosity, perseverance, vision, "can do." These are the things that make America great. I thought all along how wonderful it would be if we'd have the opportunity to debut our film in Indianapolis at the Heartland Film Festival.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

And you did.

DR. MICHAEL GUILLEN

And it's happening! I'm a happy camper.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

And you're doing a lot of outreach here. You did a Build-A-Bear event yesterday.

DR. MICHAEL GUILLEN

We reached out to all the homeless shelters in the area. We did a Build-A-Bear event with Zach and a bunch of homeless children yesterday. They were allowed by the Build-A-Bear Workshop to come in. Build-A-Bear has been another big supporter of our movie. Maxine Clark, their CEO, is in Chicago and has been tracking our movie all along. They know that we're trying to create a family movie that inspires. Maxine Clark, the CEO, said "You can have the use of our flagship store in Indianapolis at Castleton Square Mall." There we were yesterday helping homeless kids who could never afford to Build-A-Bear. They have a big sign promoting our movie. It's just wonderful to see how this movie brings out the best in people. I'm just blessed to be a small part of it. We said that we don't want to just make a movie. We want to make a movement. We want to awaken people to the problem of homeless children in America, but if homelessness is not your think pick another need in your community and go out and do something about it. I don't want to hear your too old, too young, too rich or too poor. Zach Bonner proves that you can be anybody with anything at your disposal and you can make a difference.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I think people are hungry for this type of film. I think that's why we're starting to see more of them.

DR. MICHAEL GUILLEN

People want this kind of message. I could have never foreseen four years ago that our country would be in this kind of mess, but the timing for this message is perfect. If you see this movie, you'll see what made America great. Even when you're down and out yourself, there's always someone else who's worse.
THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I was telling Zach that I'd traveled across Indiana by wheelchair myself, so when I saw his story and realized what he was doing as a young child I was just deeply touched by it and also really wanted to cover it.

DR. MICHAEL GUILLEN

I've known Zach for three years. He's amazing and he won't let anything stand in his way.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

He seems so low-key.

DR. MICHAEL GUILLEN

That's what I love about him. He's not bombastic. He's not off to do this for himself. He is genuinely committed to this. He wants to see an end to homelessness, and that's the beauty of the whole thing. It's the innocence of a child. An adult would say "1.3 million kids are homeless. That's a complicated problem. We're going to have to form committees. We're going to have to look into that." He sees a problem, he wants to be a part of the solution. At the heart of despair is to be too realistic and to over-analyze. If he sees a problem, he wants to fix it. Simple.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

How did you get David Anspaugh involved in the project?

DR. MICHAEL GUILLEN

It was a godsend. I was looking for a director. I knew we had a great script from Patrick Sheane Duncan. It's a beautiful script.

At this point, Dr. Guillen was forced back into his producer role when more fans came up who wished to speak with him. This happened a lot throughout the three hours that I spent with the cast and crew. You could see him, for that matter everyone involved with the family, regularly interacting with fans while taking photos and signing autographs. David Anspaugh was gracious and open throughout the entire event, while Rudy Ruettiger, who inspired Anspaugh's film "Rudy," supported the festivities the entire time. At one point, a chuckle was had when Dr. Guillen compared Zach to Shirley Temple, a former child star who became even more known as a philanthropist.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

How was Zach's story selected?

DR. MICHAEL GUILLEN

We started out with 6,000 story ideas. that's no exaggeration. We whittled that down to 300 story ideas that we thought would be suitable for the small or the large screen. Then, I told my team that we had to take those 300 gems and we had to whittle it down to one. We're going to use all our resources, all our funding that we received from the John Templeton Foundation and we're going to use it in bringing that one story to light. We were all unanimous. We looked at the ten finalists. We all knew it had to be the Little Red Wagon Foundation. This is an ordinary kid doing extraordinary things. We felt that it was just exactly what we wanted to do. The challenge then was to get the script written. I thought back about all the movies that I'd seen that I really loved that had the heart that I wanted my movie to have. The one movie was Mr. Holland's Opus. I said "I want Patrick Sheane Duncan to write this script." Miracle of miracles... we were able to get his services. More than that, he was enthusiastic about it. He wrote us a great script. My third and final challenge was "Who do I get as a director?" We went through 153 directors. I put the DVD of their work in and my eyes glazed over. "Nope, not right...Nope, not right." Then, I was scheduled to come to a function at Oaks Christian School in California. The kids were putting on a film symposium. The special guest that day was David Anspaugh. When I saw him take the stage, it was like a thunderbolt moment and the Lord said "There's your director."

For more information on Little Red Wagon Foundation, visit the organization's website. You can also visit The Philanthropy Project's Youtube and Facebook pages.

© 2011, Interview by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic


READ MY REVIEW OF "LITTLE RED WAGON"
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