Lewisville ISD special-needs students launch their own comic convention, and it’s drawing notice from heavy hitters

Walter Jimenez, a teacher in Lewisville ISD’s Focus on the Future program, holds up a print My Little Pony artist Brenda Hickey created specially for the Starfish Comic Expo. Hickey will serve as guest of honor at the show, which was created by special-needs adults between the ages of 18 and 21 to teach them life skills and bridge the gap between the special-needs community and the community at large. (Photo by ADAM SCHRADER)
By ADAM SCHRADER
Published in The Dallas Morning News on Dec. 17, 2015

When Walter Jimenez visits comic conventions, some of his students always ask him to get autographs for them. Now, he’s giving them a chance to get some signatures in person.

Lewisville ISD students in the Focus on the Future program, which prepares special-needs adults between the ages of 18 and 21 to transition into the world around them, are hosting a comic convention open to the public from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday at Lewisville High School.

Jimenez, a Focus on the Future teacher, said he has two main goals for the Starfish Comic Expo: to teach his students life skills and bridge the gap between the special-needs community and the community at large.

“This isn’t created by special-needs folk for special-needs folk,” Jiminez said. “This is for everyone. We’re just the ones hosting the party.”

The convention got its Starfish name from a brand the students like to use as part of some of their projects. Focus on the Future students also operate the district’s Starfish Cafè restaurant and coffee shop and a T-shirt printing company.

The idea hit Jimenez, who frequents comic conventions, at the end of the last school year. He said his students either didn’t know comic conventions existed or their parents didn’t take them.

“Parents worry how they’ll take care of their special-needs adults at a convention,” he said.

So, Jimenez decided that having his students plan and simulate a real show would be good for them. At the end of the summer, he pitched it to administrators.

Corey Bell, principal of the Purnell Support Center, which houses Focus on the Future, gave the OK.

“What Mr. Jimenez is doing hasn’t been tried,” he said. “It seemed like the right thing to do to support a teacher who stepped out of bounds to find an innovative way to support these students in their adult lives.”

Students have excited the center’s staff by embracing the comic book community in which many other adults engage, Bell said.

Jimenez said he worried the community at large wouldn’t accept the convention — until he landed Brenda Hickey, the creator of My Little Pony comic books. Hickey will attend the event as the guest of honor.

“That gave credence to what we were doing and showed that people in the community actually back what we’re doing,” Jimenez said.

Hickey, who lives in Canada, said she wouldn’t charge the district apart from the cost of her plane ticket. She said she agreed to take part in the Starfish Comic Expo because she understands the importance of people with special needs feeling welcome and at home in their community and fandoms.

“My younger brother, Joe, has Asperger’s syndrome, and had a lot of trouble fitting in at school,” Hickey said. “So now that I’m an adult and am more able to help than when I was a child, I’d like to make others who may feel on the periphery feel comfortable and accepted.”

Hickey said she’s excited to meet the students and to see them enjoy the product of their hard work.

“I’ve been told about all effort they’ve put in to this con[vention],” she said. “So I can’t wait to see them finally see it all come together and to feel that sense of pride in a job well done.”

Hickey will lead a panel on My Lttle Pony characters and creating comic books. She also drew a special print for the show, featuring a starfish as the prominent character.

“She did it for free,” Jimenez said. “It was hard to hold back emotions when she sent this, starfish front and center, since that’s our brand.”

The students went out asked local business managers and owners for donations to help raise money for Hickey’s ticket and other expenses. They also worked at charity events, folded clothes and counted money for local retailers. Now, the costumed students are presenting in local schools, trying to sell tickets.

More celebrities in the comic world responded to Jimenez’s emails once word of the show spread. Most couldn’t make it but were still supportive.

Rob Paulson, the voice of Donatello from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, sent a donation and a nice note. Phil LaMarr, the voice of the animated Green Lantern and Samurai Jack, sent a note and signed posters that he personalized to each student.

Michael Carbonaro, host of The Carbonaro Effect, made a video for Jimenez to play during the convention. It encourages the special-needs community to come out in the regular community.

Eddie Medina, who hosts a Star Wars web show from Deep Ellum, will lead a panel discussion on Star Wars. Jimenez purposefully planned the event to occur on the day the new film comes out, he said.

Taffeta Darling will serve as master of ceremonies and host panel discussions on cosplaying. Darling, who is well-known in the world of comics, writes for numerous websites and discusses geek-dom in her YouTube channel FANGIRL. She has also served as a cosplay judge and hosted pop-culture events across the country.

Darling loved the pitch for the Starfish Comic Expo because she has an autistic sister, she said. She hopes the convention will grow in scope and prominence, adding additional days in the future.

“I’m looking forward to seeing all the work the students did pay off,” she said. “There is nothing more gratifying than seeing your hard work go into play. The four hours will go by quickly.”

Every Monday, the students update Darling on the show’s progress by video chat.

“Their costumes all look really great,” she said. “I’ve kind of prowled from afar and answered questions they’ve had about putting costumes together.”

Because of Darling, two cosplay groups have confirmed appearances. Heroic Inner Kids will dress as Avengers and Justice League characters. The DFW Ghostbusters are bringing their crew, with Ghostbusters- and Jurassic Park-themed cars. Guests can take pictures with them and ask them questions.

The expo will also feature two local artists and Hickey selling prints “like at a real ComicCon,” Jimenez said. There will also be three vendor booths: a comic book store, a vintage toy store and a store that sells cosplay gear.

Mike Debalfo, a Phoenix-based comic book artist, donated his Ninja Turtles artwork as prizes for a costume contest.

Print shop students have created a T-shirt for the convention. With three colors, it’s the most intricate they have ever made. Jimenez said he hopes they will sell out.

“We had a slow year with our T-shirt sales last year,” he said. “The more T-shirts we can make, the more practice we give our students. They have to learn how to fill out invoices and tax-exempt forms.”

Jimenez said that selling the shirts particularly benefits nonverbal students who want to communicate more effectively.

Alandria Rivera, 20, said she’s going to dress as Catwoman.

“I talked to schools about it and learned how to sell tickets,” she said. “I like that I got experience doing sales so I can do it on my own after I’m out of the program.”

Shatequa Driver, 20, said she’s dressing as Batwoman for the expo.

“This has been really fun,” she said. “I’ve learned about teamwork and being awesome.”

Parents are getting more involved and asking Jimenez to tell them more about the comic culture because their children love it and being a part of a community.

“One student found a live-action roleplaying group to join,” Jimenez said. “Now they get to do things they always loved with people their own ages who don’t have disabilities.”

Southern Denton County/Northwest Dallas County editor Adam Schrader can be reached at 214-773-8188.

IF YOU GO

1098 W. Main St. in Lewisville. Tickets are $7 if you buy through the program and $11 if purchased online. For more information, visit patera22.wix.com/starfishcomicexpo.