Filmmaker's work with homeless earns accolades

DeKALB – Laura Vazquez, media studies professor in the Department of Communication at Northern Illinois University, received the prestigious Distinguished Service and Leadership Award from the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.

Vazquez was honored Monday, Oct. 29, at the association’s national conference in Albuquerque, N.M.

Since 2006, Vazquez, an accomplished documentary filmmaker, has made films in collaboration with Diane Nilan, president of a national nonprofit “giving voice and visibility to homeless children and youth,” to tell the stories of homeless women, children and youth.

“I’ve spent hundreds of hours sitting next to Laura at NIU’s film lab with eyes glued to the editing screens. She’s put me at ease – me, the former shelter director with no film experience – and she’s given me the opportunity to shape our video tools in a mutually respectful process,” Nilan said. “She’s encouraged my fledgling documentary-making efforts, and has willingly helped in ways far beyond what I’d feel I could ask. And she’s worked hard to learn about homelessness.”

Among Vazquez’s accomplishments, her efforts led to the PBS airing of “on the edge: Family Homelessness in America,” a powerful documentary featuring stories of seven women from across the country sharing gripping accounts of homelessness. The film took top honors in the prestigious Broadcast Education Association’s 2011 Festival of Media Arts competition.

Nilan, who nominated her colleague for this award, points to a rare legislative success for homeless students, passage of the FAFSA Fix for Homeless Kids Act, sponsored by Illinois Congresswoman Judy Biggert (R-13). Vazquez traveled to Washington, D.C. to film homeless youth lobbying their legislators to remove barriers to their attending college. She and her students also took footage Nilan had shot while traveling across the country and compiled it into an acclaimed heartbreaker, “My Own Four Walls.”

“Laura’s body of work gives the average American a chance to witness the lives of folks without having to leave the comfort of their homes, churches or civic organizations,” said anti-poverty activist and journalist Pat LaMarche.

Vazquez’s films are available through Nilan’s organization, HEAR US.

“The biggest obstacle to ending homelessness in this country is ignorance,” Nilan said.

“Laura’s incalculable contributions to eradicating ignorance and creating compassion have done more than any of us will ever know.”

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