Earlier this year, in a conference room on a springtime Monday afternoon, our team began planning for what would become Dear Friend, the short film we released this week.
We knew we wanted to use video to further explore some of the themes at the heart of A New House is a Big Deal, the children’s book we released last December. In conversation with the talented filmmaker Jay Worsley, we discussed how to best tell the story of a girl in Mexico and a girl in the United States who discover, through friendship, that what unites them is far more important than what sets them apart. While the film would be scripted, it was important to us that it truly represent the experiences of people close to us.
Right away, I knew who I wanted to play one of the two central characters. Shortly after the release of our children’s book, the first review had come from a girl named Keenan, who was then six years old. “I think this book is nice because building homes for people is nice,” she wrote. “And building homes and being generous is what God tells us to do.” Keenan’s parents are friends of mine, and her dad has been part of Bikes Fight Poverty nearly since the beginning, so that casting decision made a lot of sense. Fortunately for us, Keenan and her parents agreed.
Next, we needed to find her co-star, a girl of roughly the same age whose family was currently in the process of earning a new home. While 1MISSION also works elsewhere in Mexico and Central America, we wanted to film in the community closest to Phoenix, which is Puerto Peñasco. This led us to a very special family – parents Marco and Nelly, and their four kids, including ten-year-old Ailin. Construction on the family’s new house in Peñasco was just getting underway. They, too, kindly agreed to be part of the project.
When we arrived for filming in late June, the first thing we did was meet for a relaxed, prolonged lunch at a restaurant in town. We ate carne asada and spent time getting to know each other. Ailin’s parents shared their family’s story – which included fleeing violence and organized crime in another part of Mexico – and Keenan’s parents shared a bit about their own lives in Arizona.
Although neither Keenan nor Ailin have ever acted before (as far as I know), both did an incredible job. We filmed them reenacting various parts of their daily routines – waking up in the morning, walking to school, playing sports – and filmed them together on the construction site for Ailin’s new house. We also recorded the voiceover using their own voices, which gives the film an authentic, vulnerable feel. You’d be forgiven for thinking these were professionals! Best of all, it was great seeing Ailin and Keenan become actual friends during the filming.
When we premiered Dear Friend at our Gala at the Phoenix Art Museum in October, Keenan and her family saw it for the very first time along with 450 other guests. That was special. And a couple of weeks earlier, along with others from the 1MISSION team, I sat with Ailin and her family in the living room of their new house – the house that represents so many of their long-held hopes and dreams – and we watched it together. We passed the tissue box around and talked for a while about what the film represents. It was an incredible moment.
Now, as Dear Friend makes its way into the world, our hope is that it would serve to remind us that there’s no such thing as “us and them.” There’s only us. That’s what Ailin and Keenan have taught us so well.