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Unique 'Gift' Comes To Tufts

Unique 'Gift' Comes To TuftsOn Oct. 14, students, faculty, families and friends on campus for Parents Weekend and Homecoming were treated to a sneak screening of “Emmanuel’s Gift,” an emotional documentary by Tufts graduates Lisa Lax and Nancy Stern.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [10.17.05] Twin sisters and former network television producers Lisa Lax and Nancy Stern had just started their own production company when they got the call about Emmanuel. An old friend of Lax's at The Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) tipped her off about the young, disabled Ghanaian who had biked across his country to raise awareness about its disabled citizens. Three days later, as he was about to compete in his first triathlon in the United States, the 1986 Tufts graduates had their cameras rolling.

"There was something about Emmanuel's story that really inspired us," Lax said, following the on-campus screening of "Emmanuel's Gift," the inspirational documentary narrated by Oprah Winfrey about the determined twenty-something who is effecting social and political change in his West African homeland.


Lax talks about what she gained from working on "Emmanuel's Gift"
Emmanuel discusses the documentary
Lax reflects on the skills she developed during her days as an athlete at Tufts
Roberta Oster Sachs, director of the Media and Public Service Program, discusses the power of "Emmanuel's Gift"

Nearly 10 percent of the 20 million people who live in Ghana are disabled; the common perception in Ghana is that being disabled is a curse.

"If you are born disabled in Ghana, West Africa you are likely to be poisoned, or left to die by your family; if you are not poisoned or left for dead, you're likely to be hidden away in a room; and if you're not hidden, you are destined to spend your lifetime begging on the streets," according to a press release for the film.

Emmanuel, who was born with a deformed right leg, set out to change those realities.

In front of an audience in Pearson Hall, Lax recalled her initial conversation in 2003 with Bob Babbit, vice president and founding board member of CAF, who told her about the grant application his organization had received from Emmanuel. The man with one virtually useless leg had asked CAF for a bike to ride cross-country in Ghana to disprove its cruel stereotypes about disabled people.

"Something just sparked in both of us," Stern said. "We knew we wanted to tell this story."

Impressed with Emmanuel's perseverance in his cross-country bike campaign, which made him a national hero, CAF flew the disabled athlete to San Diego a year later to compete in his first triathlon. Lax and Stern, who earned a combined 16 Emmy Awards during their time in the television industry, immersed themselves in the project from that point, following Emmanuel to Ghana and back to the United States, documenting his journey.

"At this point, we just knew there was something to it, so we started to shoot," Lax recalled. "Every time we had our cameras on him, the story kept getting better."

In the two years since Lax and Stern began filming the documentary, Emmanuel has won the 2003 Casey Martin Award from Nike and the 2005 Arthur Ashe Courage Award. With financial support from Nike and CAF, he has developed a five-year plan to improve the lives of disabled citizens in Ghana.

Already Emmanuel has awarded educational scholarships to 15 disabled children, presented five disabled athletes with sports wheelchairs and distributed 100 wheelchairs to the disabled population at large. His long-term goals, which is he working towards with CAF, are to build a state-of-the-art sports complex in Ghana that will solely employ the disabled and to organize a team of disabled athletes to compete in the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing.

Lax and Stern can relate to Emmanuel's determination to change people's lives through his athletic endeavors. The former All-American lacrosse and All New England tennis players say that what they learned as athletes at Tufts helped them to complete this project.

"It's an interesting parallel, actually. The ideas of leadership and teamwork were integral parts of what we learned here at Tufts as part of athletic teams, the lacrosse team, in particular," Lax explained. "I think when you are making a movie, it's the same kind of thing. You are leading a crew, you are leading a family from a far away place, you have to work as a team leader and I think all of those values [came] together when we made this movie."

Emmanuel, who received a prosthetic leg in 2003, credits his mother with teaching him to never give up, despite his disability. Although she passed away in 1997, he continues to follow her advice.

"Basically, he doesn't accept ‘no' for an answer," Stern remarked about Emmanuel, who said that he tells himself to "keep on pounding," no matter what.

"You have to keep on doing whatever you are doing," said Emmanuel, who was on hand for the screening at Tufts. He added that the documentary makes him proud, and he hopes it will inspire others to fight for causes in which they believe.

"I believe that some audiences and other people, they are going to watch ‘Emmanuel's Gift' [and] learn something from it and they are going to do more than what I did," he said.

That's the sisters' hope, as well, when the movie opens in theaters nationally on Friday, October 21. (Click for a list of theaters)

"Our dream is for millions of people around the world to see the film and be inspired by and learn from Emmanuel's incredible journey," Lax said. "We want his experience to help change others' lives in a positive way."

For Lax and Stern, working so closely with Emmanuel on this project has already had that effect.

"To be tell a story about such an inspirational character and to be able to, in some small way, affect the outcome of many people's lives through this just so rewarding for us - almost beyond words," Lax said.



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