Amy Brenneman

Amy Brenneman is best known for her TV roles on Private Practice, NYPD Blue and Judging Amy, which was based on her real life mother, who was a state superior court judge in Connecticut. As the wife and mom of two, daughter, Charlotte, and son, Bodhi, Brenneman is heavily involved in her children’s school, CHIME. She favors its unique approach to education by blending together typical kids, like Bodhi, and kids with disabilities, like daughter, Charlotte, who has cognitive challenges. In recent years, the actress has hosted, along with actor Benjamin Bratt, the fundraiser CHIMEapalooza, and has traveled as an ambassador for CARE, the humanitarian organization devoted to fighting poverty. Brenneman recently spoke with ABILITY’s Chet Cooper and Lia Martirosyan.

Chet Cooper: We had a meeting recently with the conference producers of ABILITIESme happening in the United Arab Emirates. They are working with their department of education to better integrate children with disabilities—and I mentioned CHIME.

Amy Brenneman: We actually just got a grant to develop a three-day curriculum so that people from other schools can come; one day they’ll observe a classroom, and the next day there’ll be seminars. The whole thing will give professional support to people who want to be inclusive, but don’t know how. It’s going to happen in the spring and, hopefully by the fall, we’ll have people come through four or five times a year. Erin Studer, CHIME’s executive director and principal, got me involved. I think I was one of the only parents to be in on the planning; it was mostly educators asking, “If you had to boil down inclusion into three two-hour seminars, what would it look like?” It was a super-cool process.

Lia Martirosyan: How did you connect with CHIME?

Brenneman: My daughter has cognitive academic special needs. I got an Individualized Educational Program (IEP) for her when she was three. Back then we were in another school for a couple years, waiting to see if it was going to do it, and it immediately became clear that it was the wrong fit. But there were very few options. I actually heard about CHIME around that time, because one of the first grade teacher’s kids went to the same preschool as Charlotte. So CHIME had been on my mind. And then I saw it and immediately knew that it would be a great fit for my daughter. We’ve been there for four years. So she’s in fifth grade, and my son is in second.

Cooper: It’s great that both your kids can attend the same school. What grade level does CHIME go up to?

Brenneman: Eighth. There’s a big push to start a high school.

Cooper: How’s that campaign coming along?

Brenneman: I’m sure it will happen. Erin is very committed to it. High schools have some different, yet similar requirements. It’ll be the same sort of philosophy of project-based, accessible curriculums. A lot of the mechanics would be the same, scaffolding the academics…

Martirosyan: How does “scaffolding” work?

Brenneman: I believe scaffolding is the word they use to mean: How is this particular learner going to access this particular curriculum? The concept is to make the lessons accessible to kids with different abilities. Like right now, in fifth grade, they’re doing the Revolutionary War, and the class is reading Johnny Tremain. My daughter has an adapted version of the novel that’s better—so she can access the plot and participate in class discussions; the language is more simplified.

Cooper: I like the term “scaffolding”; it conjures up images of building around a certain issue, and then assuring everyone access to it. How did you get involved in TASH [an advocacy organization that promotes full inclusion of people with significant disabilities into their communities]?

Brenneman: Through Amy Hanreddy, who is on the California-TASH board. When we first came to CHIME, Amy was the assistant principal, and she’s an enormously important person to me. She asks me to do things and I do them, because they always turn out well.

Cooper: I was surprised to see you do that song-and-dance number at the TASH event in November.


Brenneman: Because of that conference, I got to meet Eva Sweeney, who is now a rock star to me. [Sweeney is a gender-studies scholar with cerebral palsy.] I feel like I meet so many amazing people. Comedian Allison Cameron Gray, a buddy of mine, is going to be part of the next CHIMEapalooza.

Cooper: Are you going to bring in those Pittsburgh tap dancers; the ones who do that Riverdance-style performance?

Brenneman: I know—it’s like Irish step dance.

Cooper: Isn’t that Riverdance troupe an Irish group?

Brenneman: Isn’t tap dancing like Fred Astaire?

Martirosyan: Jazzy.

Brenneman: Yeah. Riverdance is that weird, straight-arm, step-dancing thing.

Cooper: And there are three rivers in Pittsburgh, so maybe that’s where they picked up the name.


Tell me about your recent CHIMEapalooza event?

Brenneman: It was for the CHIME Institute, not just for the elementary school. Lots of people in our elementary school would say, “What is the institute?” because they didn’t come up through the infant-toddler or pre-school levels. CHIME Institute oversees infant-toddler, preschool and teacher training. So part of why I took over the fundraiser is I thought: I want to connect the charter school to this bigger mission. If you get there and your kid doesn’t have an IEP, and you just know it’s a great school, you wouldn’t even know how cool the school really is. Although everybody senses there’s something really special about this place, and about the care that the teachers take. When you dig deeper you realize why. It has to do with seeing each kid as an individual, and individualizing the curriculum.

Before CHIMEapalooza, Benjamin and I did this small fundraiser, and I kept thinking, This does not feel like our community. Our community is funky and wild and eclectic. So I had this vision for a night that was funky and wild and eclectic. It was a great success last year, both in terms of money raised, inclusivity and how fun it was. It’s not politically correct, “Those poor kids.” It’s really, “This is why this community feels so great.”

Cooper: So the second one was at CSUN (California State University, Northridge).

Brenneman: Benjamin and I wrote it and we included my friend Tim Daly and Lorraine Toussaint—and some performers with disabilities into it. Allison Cameron Gray did some of her stand-up; she’s amazing.

Cooper: CHIME is affiliated with CSUN; do you attend the CSUN technology conference?

Brenneman: No.

Cooper: Do you know about it?

Brenneman: I do.

Cooper: Then you probably know that it deals with different issues relating to accessibility and technology. Some of the products demonstrated during the conference are life-changing.

Brenneman: How cool.

Martirosyan: Aside from your TV show and your fundraiser, what else have you been up to?

Brenneman: In December, I went to this little town in Peru with CARE; I’ve started to do some traveling for them. The program I was looking at had to do with nutrition for pregnant moms and kids. I was with this really wonderful man who’s a pediatrician in Lima, works with CARE and was my translator.

I was really struck by this one kid there. His mom came up to me; she spoke a Peruvian language and she said to this doctor, “Can you help me? My son is six years old and he doesn’t speak.” My little ears just perked right up. I said, “Tell her my daughter didn’t really talk till she was four.” And I thought, wow, what are the chances of this kid getting what he needs? But at the same time this boy is part of a town of 123 people, where he’s loved and belongs.

Cooper: Did he sign?

Brenneman: No. I think there was something ‘spectrum-y’ about him, but he wasn’t totally shut down. I thought, okay, my daughter didn’t speak at two and they said, “Get her into speech therapy,” the next day she was in speech therapy. In LA, though, we have resources. When you do international developmental work, you realize that first you need clean water and sanitation and then, if a person has a special concern on top of that, you try to deal with it.

Cooper: Was this CARE part of the woman empowerment portion of the program?

Brenneman: It was basically—I want to go. I brought my kids. They wanted to send us to Africa and I thought, I don’t know if I want to go all the way to Africa. But logistically, Peru is a very easy trip. It was a program called Windows of Opportunity, which is mostly nutrition for these villages that are pretty remote. It involves a well-baby checkup; everything we would do at a pediatrician’s office.

Cooper: It’s good that they’re doing that. One challenge is follow-up. Often times there’s such a need, we’ve done stories on the Mercy Ships, where people literally walk for days to be seen by a doctor. The lines are so long sometimes they can’t be seen. Then they have to go back home and the ship doesn’t return for another year, if it comes back at all.

Brenneman: That’s right. But I think what CARE really wants to do is train local people. That’s the only way it’s going to have any legs to stand on.

Cooper: The Mercy Ships are looking to do that, too. They do try to bring other local health care facilitators onto the ship to learn, but the equipment can
present challenges.

Brenneman: I’m sure.

Martirosyan: What are you working on creatively, these days?

Brenneman: I pitched a movie to Showtime the other day. My friend, Rodrigo Garcia and I had an idea about a year ago about a mother of a pretty seriously disabled kid. And whenever I pitch the script, it’s sort of like we have to pretend there’s no CHIME. We’re making the kid about five, so they’re sort of coming out of that cocoon of adjusting and meeting the Eva Sweeneys of the world. People might think, who would want a disability? Nobody, right? And then, okay, but what is this CHIME-like community? And look at how vibrant and life affirming it is for everybody. Because it’s about authenticity, acceptance and communication—all this stuff that’s interesting.

We were talking about casting. So Gail Williamson, of Down Syndrome in Arts & Media and Rodrigo knew each other from somewhere else. It was interesting, because Rodrigo is just an amazing storyteller, but he doesn’t know of this disability world at all, so I’ve been sort of leading him along and we had this great meeting with Amy Hanreddy. And at the end she said, “What’s really cool is, you could cast a doctor with a disability.” Rodrigo got really nervous. I was like, “It’s okay!”


We talked about it later, and we’re not there yet, but I said, “Hypothetically, what is it about that idea that makes you nervous?” And he said, “I have to direct.” It just is a new thing for him..
.... continued in ABILITY Magazine

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Excerpts from the Amy Brenneman Issue Apr/May 2013:

Charles Limb, MD — Jazzology & Your Brain

CSUN — This is Your Future

Amy Brenneman — Chiming In

HE Fahed Bin Al Shaikh — Autism in the UAE

China — Dad

Kendall Hollinger — Allergies on Ice

Articles in the Amy Brenneman Issue; Geri Jewell — Spring Into Action; Ashley Fiolek — Making the Move; Humor — A Tail of Two Kitties: CSUN — This is Your Future: Long Haul Paul — Riding the MS Trail: Tony Spineto — You Say Club Foot, I Say Marathon: DRLC — Federal Wellness Programs: Kendall Hollinger — Allergies on Ice: Charles Limb, MD — Jazzology & Your Brain: China — A Family’s Story of Strength: Scotty Enyart — PhD the Hard Way: Amy Brenneman — Chiming In: HE Fahed Bin Al Shaikh — Autism in the UAE: Caroline McGraw — Finding the Gifts in Everyonet; ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences... subscribe

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