As part of The Walt Disney Company’s Future Storytellers initiative, the company has been awarded a $1 million multi-year grant that will impact the technology and curriculum of Exceptional Minds, a creative arts academy for young adults with autism.
“At Disney, we understand the importance of investing in skill development opportunities when it comes to preparing young people for careers in storytelling,” said Jennifer Cohen, vice president of social responsibility for The Walt Disney Company.
“As part of Disney’s Future Storytellers initiative, we are honored to partner with Exceptional Minds to help neurodivergent talent develop their technical and artistic talents through their renowned academy and training studios.”
The announcement was made on October 22nd at the Exceptional Minds “Decade of Impact” event held in Walt Disney Studios’ Legends Plaza, next to the massive Seven Dwarfs in the Team Disney building. Disney was also the evening’s headline sponsor, having partnered with Exceptional Minds since 2014.
“This is definitely a game-changing investment in our infrastructure—there’s no doubt that we’ll be able to continue to develop job-ready talent for The Walt Disney Company prepare our artists in a truly meaningful and comprehensive way,” said David Siegel, CEO and President of Exceptional Minds.
Siegel said he would like to see some of the funding go toward exploring the virtual manufacturing space, such as teaching students to work with real-time 3D tools. Students have already scratched the surface of this area by practicing programs such as Unreal Engine and SpeedTree.
“I know we are working to get the 3D part of our studio up and running. I really see the grant money going to get really good machines and really good software that we need for 3D work, “said Thomas Harmonson, an Exceptional Minds alumnus who works as a junior lead artist at Exceptional Minds VFX-studio.
But where Harmonson really hopes the money will go, he told Variety, is to hire more alumni to work at the academy and at the studio. Through his current position, he has had the opportunity to work on films such as “Avengers: Infinity War”; he hopes to one day become a controller of the company.
Similarly, third-year student Charlotte Snare found a potential career at Exceptional Minds as a social media manager, a position she was offered after expressing interest in creating a TikTok account for the program. His influence on Exceptional Minds, in addition to his academic career, can be seen in his key role in organizing the 10th anniversary party. She created the guest list, sent the emails and even created elements of the promotional logos used to promote the event.
“I feel like a proud mom. I feel like, ‘Oh my God, I did it!'” Snare said, reflecting on the event after the official program ended.
Exceptional Minds alumna Kate Jorgensen was also surprised at graduation with an honors certificate symbolizing her completion of the program despite leaving early to pursue a job on Nick Jr.’s Santiago de las Marios. After leaving Exceptional Minds, Jorgensen is now the production coordinator for the series, leading efforts to connect the show’s alumni.
“I had no hope or confidence; I had no hope for my future, I had no self-confidence,” Jorgensen said honestly. “I went to Exceptional Minds and it brought back that and more.”