Jeremy Vest has interviewed Karl Rove, Ben Affleck, John Stamos, and Al Franken – among others -- for an MTV show called How's Your News?. He has been coached by Geraldo Rivera. And he’s appeared as the lead character in a Western called Bulletproof Jackson – which became the subject of a separate documentary – Becoming Bulletproof. That documentary was written about by the New York Times and distributed by Morgan Spurlock Productions.
Jeremy Vest also has a rare neurodevelopmental disability called Williams Syndrome. He now lives in Wilmington, North Carolina with his parents. And he’s with us on this edition of CoastLine to talk about what some folks call a disability, his career so far, and what’s on tap for the future.
Jeremy Vest, Actor, Musician, Interviewer
Sue Vest, Jeremy's Mom
Dylan Patterson, English Instructor at Cape Fear Community College, Vice President of the Board for Board for Superstar Academy, a nonprofit working under the aegis of TheaterNOW, and Co-Founder of Theater For All
Rachel Lewis Hilburn: Jeremy Vest, we're going to get into your experiences as an interviewer for MTV in just a moment. But first, tell us about Williams Syndrome from your point of view. How do you explain it to people who've never heard of it?
Jeremy Vest: Well, Williams Syndrome is something that's very, very rare to have. People with Williams like music. We're very musically inclined. We play all kinds of instruments. We go to concerts. We do a lot of things together. We also are very, very huggable and polite and kind and nice to a lot of different people who don't expect it. They’re like, “Why would someone want to hug me when I don't want to be hugged?” You have to know your boundaries, and you know, it's different from just being a normal person.
RLH: And is that something that you have to work with your mom Sue and Dylan, who is a good friend of yours?
Jeremy Vest: Sometimes. I have to work with my mom on that because she tells me, “They don't want to be hugged. You have to understand that.” I'm like, “Okay, I understand that.”
RLH: And so what's the signal for that, when you meet someone? How do you decide if you're going to go in for the hug or not?
Jeremy Vest: Well, I kind of see how they react to it, react to me. I know that some people don't mind hugs and some people do mind hugs, but you know, hugging is something that people have to be prepared for.
RLH: I think that's a really good way to look at it. And when we were talking before we came on the air, you talked about the fact that your mom kind of tells you to watch questions that are too personal. You’re really interested in the people, and you like to ask a lot of questions. Tell us about that. How do you decide that a question is too personal?
Jeremy Vest: Well, you don't want to ask, you know, who you voted for because that's a bad question to ask.
RLH: And why is that? Why is that a bad question?
Jeremy Vest: Because people will tell you the answer that you probably don't want to hear.
RLH: My husband wishes I would understand that concept.
Jeremy Vest: That’s a question that, you know, I don’t want to talk about because I have my own personal opinions, and I try not to think about, like, “Oh God, this person is you-know-what now.”
RLH: So you have very strong political views.
Jeremy Vest: Yes. I'm sorry I shouldn’t have said that on live air.
RLH: That's okay. This is about us getting to know you today. So that's all right. The documentary Becoming Bulletproof is about the making of Bulletproof, this western that you star in. You were the lead character in Bulletproof. In the documentary, you said you don’t see having Williams Syndrome as being a disability. Tell me about that.
Jeremy Vest: Well, you know, you have a disability. There's really nothing you can do about it but just enjoy the person that you are. And I see it as a personality trait. That's what I think it is. You know, you have a different personality than a normal person.
RLH: And do you think there are advantages there that other people don't have?
Jeremy Vest: Yes.
RLH: Like what?
Jeremy Vest: Just being different
RLH: I think that's an advantage. Sue Vest, can you talk about how you learned about Williams Syndrome and what it's actually meant for you as a parent and why Jeremy lives with you? What does the diagnosis mean in a practical sense?
Sue Vest: We found out when he was three. Jeremy was quirky as an infant. I was a new parent, and I really wasn't sure what was going on, but I knew things were different. We found out about it in kind of a roundabout, interesting way. He was getting occupational therapy at the time, and a young man who was about twelve or thirteen years old with Williams Syndrome looked at him and said, “That kid’s got Williams Syndrome.” And I thought, what is that? We went to a geneticist, and he said Jeremy did not have Williams Syndrome. So we were happy not to have the label at the time. It did help through our school battles to keep him in a higher functioning program. But then when he was ten, we heard a heart murmur for the first time and went back to the same hospital, Children's Hospital in D.C., where the cardiologist looked at Jeremy and said, “Have you ever been to a geneticist?” And I said, “Yep the guy down the hall.” He said, “I think you need to go back.” They had developed a test which they hadn't had when he was three. They'd isolated the gene, and they could do a FISH (fluorescence in situ hybridization) test and determine that it was positive. And so he was officially diagnosed at the age of ten.
RLH: And what does that mean for you in terms of the care that you provide?
Sue Vest: Well, we've always tried to push Jeremy as hard as we could, to do as much as he could. One of the things I noticed at the time was that individuals who were diagnosed later in life accomplished more. One lived alone, one was driving a car. And I think they weren't told when they were young, “Well, you have Williams Syndrome. You can't do math, or you can't do this.” And so I felt like it was good that we didn't have a label, and we were able to keep him in a higher functioning classroom. He was able to learn to read very well. But as he gets older, things are more difficult. I think Jeremy could live independently, but I don't think he would enjoy it. He would be lonely,
Jeremy Vest: Probably would burn the house down too.
Sue Vest: He wouldn’t eat very well. My guess is that he would eat out. He takes himself out and buys lunch and dinner, and he's not very good with money. So that's a big issue for people with Williams Syndrome. While he's an incredibly gifted musician, math and money and time and perception are very challenging for him.
RLH: That’s so interesting, that putting a label on it seems to slow down progress for a person, and it sort of brings home Jeremy's point in that documentary about not thinking of it as a disability. It's it's an interpretation of personality.
Sue Vest: Well, everybody is unique. Everyone has challenges. Like you said, there's nothing you could do about it.
RLH: Dylan Patterson, you've known Jeremy Vest for many years. How did the two of you meet?
Dylan Patterson: We met in the summer of 1999. I was invited to a camp called Jabberwocky, which is the oldest sleepover camp for folks with disabilities. It's on Martha's Vineyard, and I went there to make a fundraising video. That's why I was there, as a filmmaker, but the director of the camp said, “Well, let me go introduce you to your camper.” And I said, “I'm not here to be a counselor. I'm here to make this fundraising documentary.” And they said, “No, everyone here volunteers, and everyone has a camper. Let me take you to meet your camper.” So I met this thirteen-year-old boy who introduced himself as Jeremy Vest, and we have been great friends ever since. And that was— We just did the math before. Well, that was 1999. You were thirteen. So, that was eighteen years ago.
RLH: We’ll get into more of this in the next segment, but you started something called Theater for All, which is under the aegis of Superstar Academy and TheaterNOW, which is a theater company right here in Wilmington. There is an actual theater, and they do all kinds of work there. But tell us about what launched Theatre for All.
Dylan Patterson: Well, what launched it is that moment in 1999, meeting Jeremy at this amazing camp. Theatre for All is a ripple from that experience, having just the profound luck of going into this environment of folks with disabilities and those amazing counselors and campers. And then, in Wilmington, I’m a teacher at the community college, and I helped to organize a program called In Cahoots to bring students with and without disabilities together to work on video projects. And then a few years ago, Zach Hanner, who is the executive director for Superstar Academy, which is a nonprofit here in Wilmington that provides no to low cost theater arts education to underserved communities, he asked me if I would be on the Board. And I said, “That sounds great.” And I thought about it and I said, “I tell you what, I'm going to join the Board under one condition: Let's start a theater program for folks with disabilities.” Zach loved the idea and that was sort of the genesis of it.
RLH: And now two years later, here you are. Jeremy, you worked as an interviewer and reporter for MTV on this segment called How's Your News. What did that name mean? How did that name come about?
Jeremy Vest: Well, I used to go to the camp called Jabberwocky, and we would go on the streets and interview people. We would have a microphone, and we would ask people different questions, you know, try to figure out what we wanted to ask them. Then Matt and Trey from South Park found us, and they wanted us to keep doing it, and then they decided to do a show with us for six episodes. We went to New York and Boston and Los Angeles, all over the country on a bus for six months, just interviewing great people. We went to some really cool events.
RLH: And what were some of the events that you went to?
Jeremy Vest: We went to concerts and the Miss America pageant, the GRAMMY Awards on the red carpet.
RLH: Wow. What was that like?
Sue Vest: Do you remember the prison rodeo?
RLH: What’s a prison rodeo?
Jeremy Vest: Well, Rachel, it's a very serious thing to talk about because the people were inmates at jails.
RLH: Wow. And did you talk to some of the inmates?
Jeremy Vest: Yes. And some of them told me some stuff that I can't repeat on here because it was too terribly, terribly disturbing to hear.
RLH: Was there anyone you met there any of the inmates that really surprised you, that you thought, “Wow, this guy's pretty cool?”
Jeremy Vest: Yes and no. Somebody told me that they actually killed someone, and that scared me.
RLH: That would scare me too. I would be afraid to hold a microphone in someone's face who said that. You also went to some political conventions.
Jeremy Vest: I was lucky enough to go with them to some of those amazing conventions. You know, “Wow, here comes Karl Rove, Ben Carson.” All these guys were coming by, and I wondered, “Should I talk to them or not?” Because they're so busy. They don't have time to talk to people for very long because they are always being shoved by people, and big entourages will come through. It was a big thrill for me and my friends to see Barack speak.
RLH: Did you get a chance to talk to Karl Rove?
Jeremy Vest: I did.
RLH: What did you say to him? What did you ask him?
Jeremy Vest: I told him my dad was his biggest fan, which is a lie, not true at all. That was a big, big mistake on my part to say that.
RLH: And did you ask him any questions?
Jeremy Vest: I said, “Are you liking the convention?” He said he was having a good time, and you know, celebrities were also there, not just politicians, that would walk by. You know, some people from my different TV shows and concerts were there. So that was nice to meet them too and talk to them.
RLH: You know, I saw a clip of you. I'm not sure if this was from the convention, but Geraldo Rivera—
Jeremy Vest: Yes, that was at the convention.
RLH: Yes, that was the convention. Tell us how he was coaching you to interview people.
Jeremy Vest: Well, he told me that to interview somebody, you have to be calm and relaxed. You have to know what to ask. You know, you say, “Why are you having fun here today? Are you enjoying the convention so far? Are you planning to go tonight to hear the big speeches? Are you going to stay and watch them, or do you have to go somewhere?” And Geraldo was so funny and very kind and generous. He's a good guy. I really liked him.
RLH: And you also talked to Ben Affleck.
Jeremy Vest: Yes, that was a very fun event. I was in Boston back in 2004 with the gang, and we talked to him. He was very generous and kind, and he said some very good things.
RLH: What did he say? Tell us what he talked to you about.
Jeremy Vest: That the disability community does belong everywhere. And he said that it's a good thing.
RLH: I thought you did a great job in that interview, by the way.
Jeremy Vest: Thank you. By the way, did you find any other any movies that I did that were funny?
RLH: Well, you know, you interviewed a band called Dispatch. Do you remember that?
Jeremy Vest: I love them. They're my friends, and I've known Chad, the lead singer, since my early teens. Yeah, Dispatch is a very good band. A lot of people know them.
RLH: Okay, for the people who don't know them, what kind of music do they play?
Jeremy Vest: They play reggae, and it's kind of like peace music. They write songs about peace and love and forgiveness. You know, they're good good guys and fun to watch in concert.
RLH: In your interview, when you introduce them, you said something like, “They were the first indie band to have sold out Madison Square Garden.” Is that right?
Jeremy Vest: For three nights, they did a show for Zimbabwe, the people of Zimbabwe, so they flew them down to perform at Madison Square Garden for three sold out shows, and a lot of my friends from Zeno were there to watch that.
RLH: Yeah. And then at the end of your interview, you did something kind of unique.
Jeremy Vest: Yeah, I played with drumsticks on some buckets. I’m more of a drum set player than a bucket player.
Sue Vest: Actually, it was a trash can.
Jeremy Vest: Trash can, bucket, whatever it is. I don’t know.
RLH: This was so impressive. Jeremy Vest, he wraps up the interview. The band invites him to jump in with them, and there are three big green plastic trash cans and you took out the drumsticks and you were as good or better than the other two guys.
Jeremy Vest: I can’t agree with. They are two of my good friends. And you know, Brad's the drummer for the show, and I've known Brad for a long time, and the other drummer is a really good friend. His name is Brendan, and he's great.
RLH: But your musical ability, your sense of rhythm is phenomenal. Do you play instruments now?
Jeremy Vest: Yes.
RLH: Tell us about that.
Jeremy Vest: I've been playing the drums since the age of eight.
Sue Vest: Well, before eight, but you started lessons when you were eight.
Jeremy Vest: I have a drum set in my house—upstairs because it’s too big to fit downstairs. It’s a good, decent-size set.
RLH: And your ear is just incredible. Sue Vest, you've talked before about how, when he was younger, he could just hear a piece of music and then duplicate it on the piano.
Sue Vest: Right. Well, not instantly, but if there's a song he wants to learn, he will work at it, and then play it identically to the way the artist would play it. But when he was two— You know, little kids bang on pots and pans, but I would say, “You know, he's not just banging. There's some rhythm here and patterns.”
Jeremy Vest: And that's what a lot of drummers have done.
Sue Vest: Yeah, and then when he was eight, we finally found some teachers that were willing to take a young student, and he started taking private lessons at that point. He's still taking lessons. In our last home, we had a wonderful wonderful music teacher, and he was with us for about sixteen years. More of a mentor and a teacher. Now he has a new teacher.
Jeremy Vest: My new teacher is Will Chacon. He's an amazing guy. He's so fun to play with and hang out with. He's a great drummer. And when we do our lessons, he wants me to show him what I've done in the past, and then he'll show me what he's learning because as drummers, we learn a lot of new stuff. I'm learning speed right now, how to play really, really fast. And there's a way to do that. You have to practice a lot, and you have to learn different rudiments and concepts and ideas. Will and I watch videos on a YouTube screen in his drum room, and I learn different things from him.
RLH: We have an email from Jim who writes, “I've met Jeremy and his mom at a few art events and at the YMCA, and I think he is one of the nicest people I've ever met. I had no idea he was a hugger. I am too. I will definitely give him a hug next time I run into him.” Jeremy, do you have anything to say to Jim?
Jeremy Vest: Jim, if you're listening, thank you so much for that lovely comment. I hope I see you again soon at an art event or the YMCA. I hope you're doing well, and happy 2017 to you.
RLH: That's very nice. Dylan Patterson, tell us about Theater for All. This is a theater company that is housed at TheaterNOW, and it's under the aegis of the nonprofit Superstar Academy. What kinds of disabilities does Theater for All accommodate?
Dylan Patterson: It's a wide range, and when folks come, we don’t ask, “What’s your disability?” and we don’t have any paperwork to fill out. We’ve just sort of put the invitation out there, and people have found us. So we have folks with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and autism—a wide spectrum of autism. We also have students of a wide range of ages, so right now I think our youngest student is about twelve and then our oldest student is around 40, I think. We’ve had some children around six or seven. We don't separate the children and adults, and that may be something sort of inherited from my experience at Jabberwocky or another camp that Jeremy referenced earlier, Zeno Mountain Farm, where there's not a segregation of adults and children, sort of a community of people that brings together various ages, various abilities, and it's been an incredible two years so far.
RLH: When you have people with different abilities and different disabilities, how do they work together? Do they learn from each other, help each other? Is it more difficult sometimes for them to communicate with one another, or do you think it's easier?
Dylan Patterson: Well, not to say any kind of trite statement that we all have our limitations, but I think it's true. I think groups of people getting together—regardless of ability or disability, which I'm putting that in air quotes—have to navigate spending time together, navigate those relationships. Now that can be challenged in some ways. We have we have one student who publicly does not speak. He does speak at home, but he does not speak outside. We have students who are difficult to understand. We also have students like Jeremy who are gifted verbally. So we have this wide range of students. Maybe the fact that some of our students don't talk that much is a benefit to us. You know, you can’t have fourteen talkers in a group. So we have to navigate that. My partners in this are Gina Gambony and Kim Henry, who are the teachers. I am merely a volunteer and supporter of the program, and we find ways to navigate these challenges. One thing we're really trying to nurture is having those folks in Theater for All who are higher-functioning play a role of mentor. And they've definitely stepped up in that capacity and it happened naturally, which I think would happen in any similar group.
RLH: Jeremy, is there anyone with Theater for All that you're working with or mentoring?
Jeremy Vest: Um, I'm just a student. I don't think I'm mentoring anybody. But I try to you know try to help people out whenever I can. And you know mentoring is kind of hard for me to do because I don't know how to mentor someone, I don't know what that means.
RLH: When you think about your experiences in Theater for All, are there people there that you've learned from?
Jeremy Vest: I don't think so.
Sue Vest: Well, how about Gina and Kim?
Jeremy Vest: Well, Gina and Kim, of course.
RLH: Well, they’re the teachers. For our listeners who recognize Gina Gambony’s name, we should say we discovered this late in the game. Gina Gambony was one of the co-founders of Theater for All. She is also the classical music host here, and she is the host of Communique which is WHQR’s daily feature about arts, events, and ideas, and it airs on our daily news magazines.
Jeremy Vest: Speaking of music, I’m in the community college jazz band here with Benny Hill, who is a good friend of mine, and I really like Benny. He's a great guy. Benny, if you’re listening, this is for you, my friend.
RLH: Benny has played here. So you are in the Cape Fear Community College jazz band?
Jeremy Vest: I am right now. Yes.
RLH: And what do you play?
Jeremy Vest: I play the drums.
RLH: And what are you working on right now?
Jeremy Vest: We haven't picked up music yet. Monday was our first day back together, and it's a very intimate-size group right now.
RLH: So Jeremy, tell us about the making of this western in which you play Bulletproof Jackson.
Jeremy Vest: So what happened was we got to California and started filming, and we had a film crew come follow us throughout our two-week movie deadline. And throughout that two-week period, they watched us film our film. And Michael Barnett brought a great crew all the way from New York and L.A. to come stay with us and walk around with us as we were doing our things, and then we started taking it to festivals all across the country, and people loved it. There were people in tears, crying, and excitement, joy, and pride. When you’re seeing a movie like that, they accept people with disabilities and who we are.
RLH: Does everybody in the film have a disability?
Jeremy Vest: They do.
RLH: Every single cast member?
Jeremy Vest: Some do, some don't.
RLH: Okay, so it’s a mix.
Jeremy Vest: It’s a mix.
RLH: And what kinds of disabilities do people have who are in the film?
Jeremy Vest: Like Dylan was mentioning, cerebral palsy, autism, Williams syndrome, and other ones as well.
RLH: And how did you get involved with that film? How did you get that part?
Jeremy Vest: I really don't know to this day. I still don't know how I got that role.
RLH: How did you meet these guys who make the films? You've done other films with them.
Jeremy Vest: I've known Peter and Will since my early beginnings of life.
Sue Vest: Well, this is an outgrowth from camp. It started with the How’s Your News videos they did, and the same group of people were involved at that time. The other thing they did at camp every year and still do is they have a big musical that they put on at the end of the camp session. And so there's a lot of theater and music involved at camp. So two of the of the brothers who co-founded Zeno—which is the outshoot, one of the sprouts I guess you could say, from Jabberwocky—were living in L.A. at the time, and they decided to have a two-week film camp. They started out with some— I think they did a little soap opera kind of a film and—
Jeremy Vest: It did not go well.
Sue Vest: Then they did a superhero film, and then they decided that they wanted to make a great movie. So Bulletproof was the first one they did on location with costumes and a serious crew, and they made a great film.
Jeremy Vest: We did 10 movies with them, 10 movies.
RLH: You said that you had worked on quite a lot of films, ten. Is this the group from Zeno Mountain Farms, which hosts a camp for people with disabilities? That's how you connected with them. So the first one that you did, what kind of film was it?
Jeremy Vest: It was a soap opera. It was not a very good one. It was called Sweetwater Tides. We tried so hard to a good soap opera, but it did not go well. Things were going wrong, and you know, it was not my favorite one to do.
RLH: What kinds of things went wrong?
Jeremy Vest: I don’t even remember.
RLH: You're blocking that out, okay. What are some of the other films you worked on before you got to the Western Bulletproof?
Jeremy Vest: I did Sky Squad Eagle 8, which was a superhero movie. We did Burning Like a Fire, which is a dragon race canoe boat movie. We did The Adventure of Lenny Maloney, and I played the lead role in that movie as well.
RLH: Tell us about your character in that film.
Jeremy Vest: Well, people were trying to buy cars, and that was a hard thing to do back then, and so we went into time travel to make sure that the cars would be sold, and the other movies that we've done are Bulletproof, the Western.
Sue Vest: You did Gyer & Gimble.
Jeremy Vest: Gyer & Gimble, a movie about a song that was a very good song.
Sue Vest: That was kind of a take on Spinal Tap. Do you remember your role in that one?
Jeremy Vest: BD Studebaker, the wedding film photographer.
RLH: And what's the most fun part of making films? Do you like learning your lines? Do you like rehearsing, exploring the character? What do you like?
Jeremy Vest: I like learning my lines because when we did all those 10 films, there would be times when people would talk when I'm trying to do my job, and it's not easy. And you know, I want to be focused, and it's hard to focus when someone's talking. I like it when someone says, “Quiet please!” Because that means it’s time to film, that we’re in the process of filming.
RLH: And what's the hardest part about filming? What do you wish you could just skip?
Jeremy Vest: I like doing it all, really. I'm not a big fan of having to wait to be called to do my lines, but I’m okay with that because then I get to interact with my friends.
RLH: Tell us about your friends. Have you built relationships that you think you'll keep for a long time?
Jeremy Vest: Forever. I mean, these people are my best friends. I love them. I didn't imagine that I would be meeting all these amazing people and have friendships that lasted for so long. I’m going to be seeing about thirty of them next week, so hello to all those people who are coming next week.
RLH: What are you doing next week?
Jeremy Vest: Marching in D.C. So, it should be a fun event.
RLH: And you're also traveling to Florida, aren't you? Tell us about that trip.
Jeremy Vest: Well, I was invited by my friend Will, who owns Zeno Mountain Farm to go down to Miami, show the film, and we're going to be doing it in conjunction with Best Buddies, I think. And we're going to show the film, and then I don't know what after.
RLH: So tell us about some of the friendships that you've made. Who are some of the people— In the documentary Becoming Bulletproof, there is a guy named AJ. Is AJ one of your friends?
Jeremy Vest: He's more than a friend. He's a brother to me. I love him. He's a great guy, and we do hang out a lot together.
RLH: Tell us about his disability and how your friendship grew.
Jeremy Vest: He's in a wheelchair. So you know, people have to move him around, and it's hard for him to get around, but he loves it whenever he gets the opportunity to come out to see us and we love it when he's there. Another very special friendship that I've made is with Dylan Patterson. I can't imagine life without him. He's just a brother to me. He's helped me through a lot, and we've hung out so many times since I moved down here, and it's continuing on and it's exciting. Dylan is just amazing.
RLH: Dylan Patterson, one of the observations that you've made before is that people who have disability tend to be marginalized, ignored, and underestimated. I think you even said oversimplified. What do you mean by that, specifically? How do able-bodied people who haven't really had contact with different kinds of disabilities, how do they tend to marginalize people, perhaps unwittingly?
Dylan Patterson: Well, I think we we tend to oversimplify anyone that we don't know well. We're in a culture where we are not seeing very many folks with disabilities in commercials, in television shows, on stage, and in other areas so becomes this thing where I think folks are not quite sure what to say or they may think, “If I can’t understand this person, what do I do?” That hesitance can lead to some people shying away from people with disabilities. And so with Theatre for All, one of our missions is to have these performances put on by our crew and provide an opportunity for folks in the community to meet folks with disabilities, just to get to sit in the dark for 45 minutes and watch people with disabilities, look at people with disabilities on a stage. They may think of them at the start as people with disabilities, but my guess is that it wasn't ten or fifteen minutes into the Christmas show that we just did where that was sort of forgotten. And instead it's, “These are an interesting group of people who are talented and who are worthy of my attention.” And then the show's over, and the folks from Theater for All can walk down the steps from the stage and meet people and interact. So part of our role is to provide an opportunity for our students to learn about theater. And one thing I want to mention quickly before I forget is not only do we have our Saturday morning class that Jeremy is a part of, but Kim Henry also does outreach at Laney High School with students there with disabilities. She also works with the transitions program for young adults, and that's through the Career Readiness Academy at the Moseley Performance Learning Center, which is operated through New Hanover County schools. That's a new outreach that we're doing. So we're really working on trying connect with as many people as possible. And part of our job is to connect the folks with disabilities to the greater community.
RLH: It sounds like you kind of stumbled into this world years ago, that it was sort of a happy accident.
Dylan Patterson: Absolutely, a happy accident. I brought Jeremy to the Cape Fear Community College campus as a celebrity speaker on three different years for the program I did called In Cahoots, which was a collaboration between your community college students with and without disabilities. And when Jeremy came, I would tell the story of how I met Jeremy, and it started with sitting down in an airplane seat and being willing to talk to the woman next to me rather than being focused on my book or my phone. And she said, “My name's Gillian Butchman and my mother started a sleepover camp for people with disabilities.” I happened to mention that I just made a documentary. She said, “Why don't you come make this fundraising video?” I said, “Sounds fun. Let's do it.” Had I been seated two rows forward, I never would have met Jeremy. I wouldn't have gone to this camp. I wouldn't have helped start Theater for All. All of these happy accidents have been a great blessing in my life.
RLH: So after getting to know Jeremy and other people with other kinds of disabilities, what kind of notions were you disabused of? Over the course of time, as you got to know people, what how did you change?
Dylan Patterson: Well, I'd had a little connection with folks with disabilities through Gina Gambony, who's one of our teachers. She worked at a group home. And also Laura Rosser, who is a great friend of our program. Rosser teaches folks with disabilities at Laney High School. But I don't know. I think you know, in the work that I've done with human beings generally, the more humans I've met, the different capacities, I think the better person I've become. I'd like to think so. Part of the oversimplification part, I think sometimes people will say, “Oh, I spend time with people with disabilities. They have such good hearts,” and I’m like, I know people with disabilities that are jerks, that I don't want necessarily hang out with. And you know I've had people say, “It's so nice that you spend so much time with Jeremy,” and I’m like, “It’s not a selfless act.” I enjoy hanging out with Jeremy. Jeremy and I are legitimately friends.
RLH: So is it something of a dismissal of people with disabilities on the part of able-bodied people, the assumption that they make? That they're not as complex, or emotionally nuanced, or—
Dylan Patterson: Well, I think that people who are not familiar with people with disabilities are often made uncomfortable by people with disabilities. And I think they're often afraid of saying the wrong thing, and then because you don't have a familiarity, then we have sort of oversimplification or we don’t see people with all their nuance.
Sue Vest: I think part of that is the lack of inclusion that exists. If people were just together more often in all situations, it wouldn't be so weird or scary or uncomfortable. They would just accept it. Almost 20 percent of the population has a disability. And so in my view, people with disability should just be included in all aspects of life. I mean it's nice to have a theater group here, and and we love Theater for All, and we appreciate it. But every now and then, it would be nice to see someone with disability on stage in a mainstream venue.
RLH: And as I understand it, Jeremy Vest, you are looking for a job.
Jeremy Vest: Please hire me.
RLH: Jeremy, you've been in Wilmington a little more than a year. Is that right?
Jeremy Vest: Yes.
RLH: So you're relatively new here, and it takes a while to get settled. I understand that you've had some interviews and I have run into some closed doors. It hasn't been easy finding a job.
Jeremy Vest: No, one of the hardest things for me was when I got back from Maryland, I went to camp, obviously, and I had a great time. When I got back, I wanted my job back, and they would not let me have my job back because they were not appreciative of me leaving for the month. I told them in advance that I was going up there.
Sue Vest: But that’s not in Wilmington. That happened a long time ago, and the business actually went under, so it wasn't tied so much to Jeremy.
RLH: Sue, I know you don't want to mention specific places that you guys have gone, but what are some of the challenges that an employer might find in this case or that an employer should be aware of?
Sue Vest: Well, it has to be a good fit. Just like with anybody looking for a job, a person with a disability has strengths and weaknesses, and if you can find a good fit and a company that is willing to provide a little extra support, at least training— I mean there should be equity. So if Jeremy comes on board, he might need somebody to help him have a little support for a longer period of time, a little more training. My feeling is that it's good for them to provide it. Many years ago, we had a lot of rocky years with the public school system, and there was a time when we just took Jeremy out and I homeschooled him. Then we tried to get him back into the school system, largely so he could be in the band. You know, he was an excellent musician, but he didn't play with others in an ensemble so it cost us thousands of dollars in lawyers to get him back in the program. And then at the end of his middle school graduation, the principal mentioned Jeremy in her speech, saying what having Jeremy there had added to the school. It had been an asset. And then fifteen years after that, that music teacher got the award for the Teacher of the Year in Maryland, and he mentioned the inclusion of Jeremy in the band as having been a good thing for him and for the other students, as well as for Jeremy.
Jeremy Vest: The band was fun for me.
RLH: When you think about the kinds of things that you would like to do to earn some money, what kinds of things come to mind?
Jeremy Vest: I would like to work down here on some films and TV as well. Wilmington is known for Dawson's Creek and One Tree Hill and all those great shows that I've watched and loved, and maybe something can happen. I hope that somebody would want me to join their film.
RLH: Jeremy Vest, Sue Vest, and Dylan Patterson, thank you so much for joining us today.
Sue Vest: Thank you.
Dylan Patterson: Thank you.
Jeremy Vest: Thank you.