By Kelly Farrell | Naples Daily News
One that was caught on camera.
The girls, all considered at-risk teens, took part in a five-month fitness, leadership and empowerment program, Wellfit Girls Challenge. A film crew followed their progress, capturing their adventures from Naples to Peru. This weekend, the documentary film, “Warrior One” will be shown at the Naples International Film Festival at Silverspot Cinema.
The film also is the debut of what Naples producer and Wellfit Challenge program founder Jill Wheeler hopes will become a national movement.
“I used to think that I had to have money to make a difference in the world. After being in Peru and being with the kids there, I know I can be a positive influence in my own community. I already have so much to offer right now,” said Evelyn Pacheco, 16, a member of the New Horizons of Southwest Florida program for at-risk children and teens, several of whom joined the Wellfit Girls Challenge.
“This is more than a movie; this is a movement,” said Wheeler, who launched the Wellfit Girls Challenge in 2013, knowing that with the help of friend and filmmaker Jon Fitzgerald, of Los Angeles, the experience could have a larger social impact while becoming Wheeler’s first film production.
“Warrior One” sold out in two days, faster than any film in the film festival’s history, said Wheeler, who has served on the film festival board since its inception, even before it was officially founded in 2009.
Wheeler, a licensed mental health counselor, adventure guide and yoga teacher, brought the girls on a journey that began near home — with weekly yoga, physical fitness training and leadership development that eventually took the group to Machu Picchu, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
The girls gained confidence and new perspectives of themselves through the experience, and it was in Peru where their perspectives and their ability to impact the world, changed forever, participants said.
Fitzgerald was enthusiastic to serve as director, seeing the potential of the film fitting his mission with Cinecause, an organization Fitzgerald founded to support films that seek to make positive change in the world.
“This is exactly the kind of movie I want to make. It’s powerful. You see in this film that no matter how meager your circumstance, no matter how many challenges, they can be overcome and these girls have the power to make a difference,” said Fitzgerald, who took several trips to Naples to interview the girls, tracking their progress and joining them on their journey in Peru.
While several participants were at-risk teens, program leaders are hesitant to use that title.
“Who isn’t an at-risk teen?” pondered Colby Robertson aloud. Robertson, a former TV news reporter and current marketing professional in Naples, served as project coordinator for the program and film.
Many of the girls didn’t even know if they had the skills to raise the money to get to Peru. But they were determined to start by getting physically fit enough to make the hike and bear the altitude.
“I was an at-risk teen, but no one knew how much pain I was holding inside. The day I started believing in myself, there was no going back,” said Wheeler.
She replicated that power of gained self-confidence in the lives of the Wellfit Girls Challenge and all made it to Peru.
“I wanted to create a program that would empower teen girls and teach them that they can climb high in all areas of life no matter how low they felt about themselves or life,” said Wheeler.
The girls in the Wellfit Challenge come from various backgrounds, with homes in Naples, Marco Island, Bonita Springs and Estero.
Some of the girls and their families are considered impoverished by American and particularly Naples-area standards, living with big families in small manufactured homes, challenged to provide the basics in life and often supporting their families while still children themselves. Many entered the program with low esteem.
Along their trek to the Andes mountaintop in Peru, participants said they gained a new perspective of poverty, of the richness in happiness during varying external circumstances and of their ability to make a difference in the world.
“I can’t fathom, I can’t put into words just how awesome and changing this experience was. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to explain it to anyone on this earth,” said Naples resident Riley Zuccarello, 16.
The film sought to capture what she can’t put into words.
While Wheeler knew at the outset she’d turn the experience into film, Zuccarello thought maybe it would make it to YouTube, maybe not even that, she said.
“Being involved in the film festival the past six years, I am aware of the power of film to generate conversation and change. This wasn’t just a one-and-done program. This film is to create a movement, a curriculum like this, so leaders can take this up on their own and have these programs all over the country,” said Wheeler.
Applications for the next Wellfit Girls Challenge are being accepted from girls throughout Southwest Florida. The film and the program are in need of funding to continue growth, Wheeler said.
“It’s one thing to make a film. It’s another to get it out into the world,” she said.