OddBallz

Hello teachers parents and readers! We’re very excited to be featured on the blog and appreciate the opportunity to share a little bit about The Entertaining Oddballz with you.

My name is Matthew Fuller.  I am the concept’s creator.  I am a disabled father and long-time education advocate.  I originally came up with The Oddballz concept in 2014 while recovering from a major surgery.  However, due to recovery time we did not get to begin publicizing the concept until June of 2015.

In the few short months since we started (which have felt very long due to the amount of hours involved) we have been very fortunate to have a small degree of success.  We have received radio play in both The United States and The United Kingdom and support from several celebrities.  We have been able to participate in food drives and donate Oddballz themed school supplies to needy children through the United Way’s “Blessings in a Bag” program.  However, we’re most proud of the fact that The Oddballz will be used in schools in several states this fall as a teaching tool and we hope that after you read this you will contact us and we will have the opportunity to impact even more young people.

My personal story with educational advocacy begins in high school, where I taught a class of 2-4 year olds at a local United Way daycare program for children from the local public housing.  I come from a two-parent household raised by college-educated parents and so the import of education was always stressed.  However, attending a high school where less than 10% of my class went on to college it was impressed upon me early that disparities in educational opportunity are a community problem to be remedied by active community participation.  Thus I continued personal efforts in education outreach into law school where I was elected by my peers to represent our class and formed a corporate partnership between the law school and the Homeless Children’s Education Fund that allowed law students to tutor and mentor youth in battered women’s shelter’s around the city.  I held, and still hold the belief, that access to education and the upward mobility that can follow is a fundamental human right. Unfortunately, I fell ill in my first year of law school and became disabled.

As a child, when life was disability free and one’s possibilities were as wide open as one’s ambition and imagination, I was a member of the Maryland Boy’s Choir, a Grammy Winning kid’s group with whom I got to tour the United States and Canada and perform at The White House, Kennedy Center, and other venues and have amazing experiences at an early age. When I became disabled I turned back to music for its palliative effects on my stress levels and as a hobby, while I waited through the months to recover from an autoimmune condition that went in and out of remission.

Eventually, the therapy became a professional pursuit as myself and my group of friends formed a production team that produced a Grammy nominated rap song and numerous others that made it to radio.  We relocated, moving to Atlanta, GA a hotbed for hip-hop and worked with some of the biggest stars in the hip-hop world and other genres as well. Yet that experience would be cut short as due to pre-existing conditions, I could not get health insurance in the State of Georgia, and the medical bills and recurring hospitalizations made continuing to pursue the exciting world of hip-hop in Atlanta impossible.

I returned to my hometown, Washington, DC, where there were public programs for persons such as myself, and I could get more affordable access to care.  I was ill and missing out on my career not knowing the best days of my life were ahead of me.  My first child was born, and that became the most precious part of my life.  I also resumed volunteering in education, working with a literacy program in D.C. public schools. One of the things I enjoyed doing most during that time was playing classic kids’ music around the house for my daughter, “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” etc.  I didn’t know that those moments of family fun would eventually lead to The Entertaining Oddballz.

As a parent and music fan, I was a heavy consumer of children’s music.  My daughter had tons of kid’s CD’s.  But as a producer and audiophile, I was surprised by the outdated sound of most of the offerings.  They were passable for road trip sing-a-longs, but when I shared the more upbeat versions I was creating at home with friends in the music industry I was encouraged that my renditions of these children’s classics might be commercially viable for Generation Y parents and be able to compete in the marketplace.  But in general, to market music one needs a vehicle, a cast of characters, something compelling to attach the audience emotionally to the music. I knew immediately that I wanted disability to be my vehicle.  For the specifics, The Oddballz takes place at a fictitious school for disabled children, Play More Academy.  The series’ protagonist is Willie, a disabled boy who dreams of being a sports star despite being relegated to a wheelchair.  The Oddballz are sports balls and equipment that come to life in Willie’s imagination when he spins them on his finger, and then as with other shows in the genre, the group engages in educational adventures for our audience.

I think in light of this year being the 25th anniversary of The Americans With Disabilities Act, this kind of concept is timely and necessary.  For all the kids’ shows my daughter and I enjoy together, are noticeably devoid of representations of disability.  As of the last census, 1 in 5 Americans were found to be living with disability, roughly 57 million people.  When I pick up my daughter from school I meet her disabled friends and classmates. In fact virtually no family worldwide is untouched by disability.  However, it seems with regard to public perception many take cues on social realities from the media.  So despite the disabled being all around us, if they aren’t on television, they are largely invisible in the consciousness at large.  That being the case I sought to reach the media, and if successful, use that position to de-stigmatize disability for children by having a handicapped child protagonist.  Thus far the reaction to The Oddballz has exceeded my wildest expectations.  But I hold the conviction that the reaction is due to the fact that disability awareness is simply a concept that is so overdue in media that many people are excited about breaking first ground, so to speak.

Disability awareness was to be the primary social aim of the Oddballz.  However, we chose several other important social issues to address with the concept. In addition to disability, we want to encourage diversity understanding by having characters of different cultures and ethnicities. I feel this is particularly important in light of the current climate with the events in Ferguson, Baltimore, and elsewhere.  By having our characters revolve around sport, we were able to capitalize on persons’ pre-existing emotional attachments to those games.  For example somehow our soccer character Fut was found on FaceBook by kids in Algohinas, Brazil.  As a result, we had over 1,000 FaceBook fans in that localized region, and converted that page to a Brazilian, Portuguese language page and created a new one for English speakers in the US.  But, it was largely the laundry list of domestic tragedies that led to the notion that the development of a diverse cast that promotes cross-cultural respect and unity is essential.

Additionally, we want to focus on gender-empowerment so that little girls never feel like they are less than little boys.  Throughout my life, strong, incredible, intelligent women, who have been leaders, mentors and friends, have impacted me.  The Oddballz ourselves woman owned, and another of our main protagonists was designed after my own bi-racial daughter, who, if her 4-year-old demeanor is any future indicator of permanent temperament, will one day be a strong woman in a leadership position herself.  Additionally, an extremely talented female animator does our wonderful illustrations and character depictions, which I would argue have done more to draw people in to The Oddballz brand than my music.  Fortunately, there are many kids’ shows with female leads, but I didn’t think that lessened the importance of us being a part of that dialogue.

The final two primary social issues addressed by The Oddballz aren’t issues we’re trying to promote, but ones we hope to help stamp out. In addition to music, sport was the other love of my youth.  In addition to participating in high school sports, Itrained at the Sugar Ray Leonard Gym just outside of Washington, DC and got to travel as an amateur boxer and compete in places like Detroit and Las Vegas.  I was enthralled with the notion that talent and hard training can take you somewhere.  My love for teaching was also put to use as I helped coach the boxing club at my university and got to represent the school in intercollegiate competition.

However, just a few years later, with my autoimmune condition doing considerable damage to my spinal chord, I was told I would be relegated to a wheelchair for the rest of my life.  Not only did I lose the thrill of being able to compete, I lost the ability to exercise at all.  Simultaneously on high doses of prescription steroids, I gained quite a bit of weight. Losing my ability to enjoy physical activity was mentally tough.  What was equally tough was the realization that there are many children with no diagnosis, who don’t engage in much physical activity at all.  So I decided it was important to make an effort to combat childhood obesity by encouraging active play in children and get kids moving with our up-tempo music made for dancing.  To their credit, many high-profile names in sports have helped us through social media.  Former NFL All-Pro and NFL Network Analyst LaVar Arrington, in particular, who does tons of great work with young people himself, has stepped up and been an online advocate raising awareness about The Oddballz.  Also a former resident of my small neighborhood in D.C., four time world champion and boxing hall of famer Mark Johnson, in his time considered one of the best pound for pound fighters in the world, another athlete turned mentor, who also does great work with kids, has stepped up and accepted a role on our advisory board, expressing willingness to lend his support and ideas to ways in which we might incorporate active play into our concept and build a lifelong love of physical activity in children who are consuming more processed foods and moving less than ever.

Finally, we want to incorporate an anti-bullying message into our work so that children are free to enjoy childhoods unmarred by violence and understand that friendship and non-violence is a far superior alternative.  There are fewer things uglier than violence against children.  When I have had the opportunity to go back to my middle and high schools to speak I have emphasized to the children to look around them, and point out the fact that the reason they attend school together is that they are members of the same physical community.  I think understanding community and one’s obligation as a member thereof is to not do harm or ill to their fellow community member.  I think at the root of many of our social goal is the concept of community and the import of community values and a collective sense of social obligation.  It is our hope that we can incorporate all of these important social concepts into future Oddballz offerings and make a difference in the lives of young people.

While we have been fortunate to be invited into venues in the local community, social media has also been key, allowing us to connect with like-minded individuals. When The Oddballz began we had no vocalist and I could not afford studio time to record vocals of my own. So I simply began by posting my instrumental versions of the children’s songs, along with our artwork.  We began to garner some media attention, being publicized by Internet outlets such as Australians With Disabilities Magazine among various others, connect with education advocates, and get our first play on US radio. (You can see a video of the recording of our first US FM play here: https://youtu.be/4FnzpNCItBs?list=PLtOuygZL_yKMZ1TjFr115Lah4toi_EHMu.)

In the two month’s since, we’ve gained 28,000 followers on Twitter including celebrity followers, not only musicians like Tupac Shakur’s former music group Digital Underground, but also sports stars including Baltimore Oriole great Gregg Olson (And the aforementioned LaVar Arrington and Mark Johnson), TV and film actors like Taye Diggz, media members such as the several from Fox’s L.A. based KTTV news, and even politicians like California Senate Leader, Kevin DeLeon and one of Los Angeles’ leading radio personalities DJ King Assassin who’s kindly regularly assisted us by sharing our content with his 3.5 million followers.

Fortunately in our second month, we also reached a very talented singer and actress, Ms. Raquel Herring.  If the name sounds familiar, it’s because she’s an incredible artist with a bevy of accolades.  Raquel, who goes by Roque (pronounced Rocky) was a member of Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club.  She also headlined a play on Broadway as the lead character.  That was after her incredible run on the television show Star Search, where she appeared 13 times and was ultimately crowned Teen Champion.  Since, she’s appeared in films like Nora’s Hair Salon and on the television show The Parkers.  When we were approached with the opportunity to be played on FM radio in the UK reaching the London audience, we had Roque’s awesome and charismatic vocal performance on “The Hokey Pokey. (You can see a video of our first UK play here: https://youtu.be/YHeYggo2sCE).  Roque’s agreed to work with us on several upcoming commercial releases as a vocal talent and we’re exited about the possibility of melding our upbeat production with her captivating vocal presence.  In addition to renditions of classic children’s songs, we have many original songs composed and waiting to be recorded, so that we can share our first person perspective with parents and their children through our music.

We have been incredibly lucky to have received the level of publicity we have in just a two month span, but it would be all for naught if we were not making an impact in education as we originally set out to do.  Fortunately, that has not been the case.  Soon after we began to publicize the concept on Twitter, we began to hear from members of both the education and disability communities. Dr. Marquis Grant, an Autism mom and special education teacher recognized us as she found our music was educationally helpful as therapy for her own children.  You can see her piece on us here: http://mylifemyautism.blogspot.com/2015/07/the-oddballz-musictherapy-for-children.html. That inspired us to keep going with our concept and trying to help young people.

At our first public performance, several educators approached us about bringing the concept into their schools. We’ve received (and granted) requests from teachers to incorporate the concept into their curriculums.  So we are proud to say The Oddballz will be used to educate children from public school assemblies where we’re based in Maryland, to classrooms in North Carolina. Still scraping by on disability income, and devoid of funding, we have no budget and rely on the kindness of strangers who see our vision.  Thankfully, several have. Tourbilon, an app creation company approached us with the generous offer develop our first children’s app for free. Also upcoming is a deal with Field Trip Zoom, a “virtual field trip” company to bring The Oddballz into hundreds of otherwise unreachable schools in the United States and Latin America via the Internet.  So in addition to appearing in local schools, we will be able to touch children across the Western Hemisphere with our social message and educational content.  An Internet television network The Disability Network Canada, hoping to make the jump to cable, has also reached out to us to provide content for their network, which we hope to do shortly, but at the moment finding funding for animation is prohibitive on our slim budget.

Being accepted in the educational sphere is by far the most humbling and gratifying aspect of The Oddballz experience for myself as the creator.  I knew I could make “Row Row Row Your Boat” sound cooler for my daughter.  But I was unsure if we’d get a chance to touch other families and students in an impactful way.  That doubt has been laid to rest and we are now scrambling to find the way to most effectively reach and teach.

We’ve also been able to connect with fellow members of the disabled community.  As we grow, we hope not just to increase the profile of disabled identity, but of disabled persons themselves and provide a platform for disabled persons with something to contribute.  A great example of that is our collaboration with Peter Elvidge.  Peter is a blind pixel animation artist, who despite his disability makes amazing artwork.  Peter designed our current Twitter avatar and I was personally so awestruck by his ability to create his art despite his circumstances, that I asked him to discuss just how he is able to do it.  He graciously explained it in this YouTube video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2wE9ktjk9Vw.

It’s a great feeling to know that this thought that came from nothing, this interest to teach that came out of love, is now being utilized in school systems.  But we’d like to grow into a global concept like Sesame Street and infuse the conventional media with the disabled identity much the same way that Dora The Explorer has introduced Mexican ethos to the mainstream successfully and got children the world over saying, “ ¡Vaminos!”  We think that ultimately, the answer will be to get scripts done, investors with the faith and foresight to remove the obstacles of budgetary constraints and find a major network that can do more justice to our concept than my current crude homemade iMovie animations.

We have come farther than we thought we would, but we are not where we’d like to be.  It is my hope that by sharing our story with the blog, we might reach an audience receptive to novel ideas in education.  For teachers reading, we’d be happy to provide you with Oddballz materials free of charge to share with your classroom and make a part of your curriculum.  For parents, we’d love to become a part of your family’s entertainment time together, for as parents ourselves, we know how precious that time is.  For people with particular talents and skill sets, we are openly and actively seeking any kind of assistance, from public relations, to animation, assistance with scripts and everything else.  My talent is in music and my passion is in education and disability issues, but I’m sure is someone better suited to write about us, do our videos etc.  If that is you, we’d love to hear from you.  Finally, for advocates, we are in the process of forming a non-profit, we desperately need funding to be able to continue to produce Oddballz content.  As I mentioned, everyone who has worked with us and assisted us thus far has done so out of passion for the endeavor, because we are simply unable to offer financial compensation.  We’d like to change that.  While our non-profit has not been established yet, due in part to not anticipating this level of reaction, individuals may still make donations on our website http://www.theoddballz.com/donate.html, and we sincerely appreciate any donation of any size.  All donations will be used in there entireity to produce more Oddballz content.  Anyone who would like to reach out to us may do so at info@theoddballz.com.  We really appreciate the blog giving us a space and platform to share who we are and what we do.  Finally, for families and educators who would like to hear some of our work, you can do so on our site’s free media page (http://www.theoddballz.com/free-media.html) and enjoy our YouTube playlist here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLtOuygZL_yKMZ1TjFr115Lah4toi_EHMu. We sincerely thank the blog again for the opportunity, and thank you the reader for your time and interest.  Please follow us on twitter at http://www.twitter.com/theoddballz and don’t hesitate to contact us with any information or inquiries.  Thank you for your time, lovingly, The Entertaining Oddballz.

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