By Maureen Lee Lenker
November 06, 2017 at 10:00 AM EST
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Kids in the Spotlight

A version of this story appears in the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands now, or available here. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

In EW’s column Act With Me, stars share their personal stories about giving back. This week, Modern Family star Ty Burrellspeaks about Kids in the Spotlight, which empowers children in foster care by helping them their own short films.

WHY I TOOK ACTION

The Modern Family star was inspired by his own father, Gary, who “spent the bulk of his adult life working in the foster care system.” When Burrell first heard about the program four years ago, he jumped at the opportunity to get involved because of the program’s emphasis on creating moments of success for the kids involved. “When [kids in foster care] had the opportunity to experience success, he would get very emotional about it because it happens so infrequently in that particular system. It’s very difficult for kids to feel or really experience success for a whole variety of reasons,” explains Burrell. Sadly, his father passed away in 1989, and Burrell feels this allows him to continue his legacy. “I just feel like my dad would be very touched,” he says. “I wanted in some way to try to carry on his work.”

WHAT THE FOUNDATION DOES

Kids in the Spotlight provides classes and resources to help a group of foster kids write, produce, direct, and edit their own short films, which culminates with a gala film festival every fall. The participants get the chance to tell their own stories and have their voices heard, while also possibly discovering a vocational calling. “There’s a vocational aspect that I really believe is sort of a bonus,” explains Burrell. “They spark to some of these jobs and see them in action, whether it’s writing or casting or on set. It can be camerawork or hair and makeup — there are so many jobs on a film set and actually seeing that it’s something they could do for a living and seeing that they’re very capable of it, looking at it and just going ‘Oh, I could do that’ — whether it’s a job like mine, which is basically falling over for a living, or something that requires more skill, which is literally any other job on a film set.” Kids learn from professionals in the business and acquire filmmaking skills in the process — some of the participants have gone on to film school and careers in the entertainment industry.

WHY IT’S IMPORTANT

Burrell says even more important than the vocational aspect is the program’s ability to empower the participants and impart confidence. “Most of these kids aren’t seen or heard by the world, they’re completely marginalized,” the two-time Emmy winner explains. “This is an opportunity to say we would like to hear your story, whatever it is — whether it’s a very heavy autobiography, whether it’s a silly zombie movie, we want to hear what you have to say, which is an incredibly important thing to a kid who feels invisible.” Burrell adds that going through the experience of completing a short film is a huge confidence builder. “That’s a huge project for any kid, let alone a kid that has been told by society and by a culture that tells them they’re not capable of much,” he says. “That’s a huge thing for self-esteem.”

The Modern Family actor serves an ambassador to the foundation, hosts its annual film festival gala, and works one-on-one with the kids in the program teaching a KITS acting class and traveling with them to Washington D.C. to attend a film festival. From those interactions he’s witnessed firsthand how KITS changes lives. “The larger impact of something like Kids in the Spotlight is really just the other aspects of self-esteem and being seen and heard and realizing they’re capable of doing bigger things,” Burrell says.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

Donate. “If anybody is thinking about giving money to KITS or anything in the foster care system, really, money going to the foster care system can have a huge impact on the world. Right now, foster kids are disproportionately represented in our homeless population; 70 percent of our prison system are foster kids — it’s a bizarre, huge, huge number,” says Burrell. “Organizations that are working with foster kids, they’re trying to make up for a government that, especially right now, is not doing enough to help this problem. But the impact they’re having and that anybody who contributes has — there’s a huge sort of bang for the buck in terms of your money and time and energy having a huge impact on the kids and hopefully on society.”

California residents can also donate time and energy as volunteers or by attending the annual gala screening of that year’s completed films, which took place on Nov. 4 this year. For those specifically involved in entertainment, you can volunteer to teach or donate equipment to the program.

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