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Anti-bullying film festival organizers changing direction

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Published:   |   Updated: March 5, 2014 at 08:55 AM

NEW PORT RICHEY — Chris Mahan had big plans for last weekend. The “HOPE for the Bay Film and Art Festival” was supposed to be chock-full of workshops for parents, meet-and-greets with local and national filmmakers, showings of local student films, performances by an anti-bullying hip hop artist and more.

It aimed to raise awareness of bullying and suicide and everything that goes with it- self-harm, domestic violence, drug abuse, depression, homelessness and more- and provide the community with a resource for education and hope.

“These kids are the future of our country and are giving up age 10, 11, 12,” Mahan said.

Due to a lack of interest and funding, Mahan said, the festival was a flop. After nearly a year of planning, Mahan, his wife Dione and other organizers had to cancel their contract with Calvary Church in New Port Richey, where the event was to be held, and re-think their approach.

The idea for the festival began in late 2012, when Mahan overheard teens talking about a Pasco County teenager who had committed suicide. Then another teenager, Fivay High School student Jessica Laney, killed herself after allegedly being bullied online.

The Mahans, parents to two young boys, also found out their young neighbor was cutting herself.

“We found out that Jessica was the sixth teen to be lost to suicide that year and in the last two years here in Pasco County she was the eleventh teen lost to suicide,” Mahan said in his video last September about the organization. “We decided right then we had to do something.”

The Mahans launched an organization called Crazy 8 Freedom to offer life-coaching and group speaking and held its first event ,“Stop the Pain,” on January 19, 2013, a public forum to combat bullying and assist teens with mental health issues. About a 100 people showed up.

Five days later, 12-year-old Miguel Rodriguez from Brooksville hanged himself in his bedroom closet.

“We knew what had to have a much bigger impact,” Mahan said. The festival began taking shape from there.

Mahan and his wife, who both worked in the film industry before the market crash in 2008, reached out to their contacts to fill out the educational and entertainment aspect of the festival.

Featured speakers included Lee Hirsch, the director of the documentary “Bully,” local anti-bullying activist Sarah Ball; anti-bullying hip-hop artist Corey Thornton, Pasco filmmaker Lawrence Feeney; and the creator of “Aqua Teen Hunger Force,” Matt Maiellaro.

“The purpose was two-fold,” Mahan said. “To give parents and teens real information about the prevention of bullying and teen suicide and to give kids a positive outlet to vent emotional stress and frustration. We wanted kids to have a greater sense of purpose, to dream and think beyond their current life situation, whatever that may be.”

When he began networking with local businesses and organizations in the community, the feedback wasn't what he expected. While Mahan declined giving specifics, he said he was told that “they didn't see the value of the event from a marketing standpoint,” that it was “inappropriate for students” and that some didn't want to participate because the event was being “held at a church.”

“We have lost so many kids here the last couple years to suicide for no good reason at all,” Mahan said. “I don't know why our community isn't getting behind this problem. The festival was designed to be a fun, hope-filled, inspirational two days to get kids fired up about their futures and give parents free resources.”

A GoFundMe account raised a mere $20. Staywell Kids printed all their marketing materials and fliers for free and the Alliance for Substance Abuse donated $500. The Pasco Sheriffs Office offered up deputies and the K-9 unit to speak to attendees but were unable to provide support financially.

Mahan said even a few elected officials gave support, especially U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Pasco Commissioner Henry Wilson. In the end, however, the money raised was minimal and wouldn't cover the costs to rent the church, fly in speakers and entertainment and other miscellaneous expenses.

Mahan isn't completely throwing in the towel. He, his wife and their connections are planning to launch a series of live webinars in October covering the same topics of bullying and teen suicide, under the auspice of the the “HOPE for the Bay Film and Art Festival” and Crazy 8 Freedom.

“I think if we do it via the Internet it will be a heckuva lot cheaper and we can reach more people around the country, Mahan said.

For more information or questions about the online version of the festival this fall, check www.crazy8freedom.org or email Mahan at chrismahan@crazy8freedom.

You can reach Daylina at dmiller@suncoastnews.com or (727) 815-1067(727) 815-1067. Follow her on Twitter at @DaylinaMiller.

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