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Michigan music camp for people with disabilities featured in new film

Austin is one of the music camp participants featured in the documentary Camp RicStar
Courtesy photo
Camp RicStar Still Photographer Jena Hovey/McShane Photography  & Camp RicStar Director of Photography Danny Vecchione
Austin is one of the music camp participants featured in the documentary Camp RicStar.

The documentary Camp Ricstar will kick off the Capital City Film Festival in Lansing on April 10.

A new documentary film focuses on a camp for people with disabilities at Michigan State University’s Community Music School. Camp RicStar has its world premiere Friday in California. Next month, it will be screened in Lansing.

Eric Winter was born with conditions that left him largely non-verbal and using a wheelchair. At the age of three, a therapist discovered that the boy had a knack for music, and suggested placement in music classes. There, he blossomed and his nickname, “Eric the rock star," evolved into “RicStar.”

In 2003, Eric died unexpectedly at the age of 12.

Parents Judy and Dick Winter have since poured themselves into a music camp for kids and adults like Eric.

Judy Winter says being at the camp brings out mixed emotions in her. She wishes something like it had been available to Eric.

Judy Winter, with an image of her son, Eric
Jena Hovey - McShane Photography
Courtesy photo
Judy Winter, with an image of her son, Eric

“He always wanted to go to summer camp,” she explained. “At that time, it just wasn’t something that was done with kids that had his kind of disability and needs. And so, he missed out on that opportunity."

"To know that we have created this incredible place that he wanted to be part of, in his name, is beyond," Winter added.

The music camp isn’t just for children. Adults like Austin, a 31-year-old who’s featured in the documentary, attend, too. She has a mild form of cerebral palsy.

“The thing I like about camp, is just seeing other people have fun getting to explore their abilities," she explains in the film. "And for me, to be kind of a little cocky when it comes to mine.”

Judy Winter met filmmakers Sam McConnell and Lukas Hauser when they made a short movie about her for a L’Oreal “Women of Worth” awards program in 2019. Together, they decided to expand their project to feature length.

“We were able to make a short piece, about a three-to-four-minute short documentary piece,” McConnell said. “We always felt that there was really room there to make a larger story.”

McConnell shot the movie during the camp’s 20th year and Hauser edited the film. Hauser says they’ve made 100 short films together, and thinks it isn’t hyperbole to say that Judy Winter’s story is the most moving of them all. He recalled crying in his home studio while editing the original piece on Winter.

"That always stuck with us," Hauser said.

One of the film’s revelations is that Eric found ways to write music. Judy Winter says one day, her son was in a room that had music symbols on the wall. He stared at them long enough that his therapists figured out that he wanted to compose.

“From there, they worked with him painstakingly to come up with different chords, and he was determined as to what he wanted and did not want,” Winter said. “Those compositions that you hear are born out of great skill and heart and determination of this young man who just loved music and was full of music.”

Some of the music written by Eric is in the movie, performed by adults who worked with him.

Camp Ricstar will have it’s world premiere Friday at the Cinequest Film Fest in San Jose. Other festival screenings have been scheduled, including the recent announcement that the movie will kick off the Capital City Film Festival in Lansing on April 10.

Scott Pohl is a general assignment news reporter and produces news features and interviews. He is also an alternate local host on NPR's "Morning Edition."
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