A wishing star: Orlando teen’s acting dreams come true on set of Central Florida film

Grace Harkins stars in ‘SpecialTee,’ a short film featured below

For Make-A-Wish teen and Orlando resident Grace Harkins, her dream of becoming an actress was realized with the help of Central Florida production companies Hoffy’s Heart and Mute Majesty.

ORLANDO, Fla. – Hollywood isn’t the only place where dreams come true for aspiring actors — a dream is also a wish Hoffy’s Heart makes.

For Make-A-Wish teen and Orlando resident Grace Harkins, her dream of becoming an actress was realized with the help of Central Florida production companies Hoffy’s Heart and Mute Majesty.

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They produced and premiered “SpecialTee,” a 9-minute movie made through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, starring the nonprofit’s own leading lady.

Grace Harkins, of Orlando, stars in "SpecialTee," a movie about embracing what makes us special. (Hoffy's Heart Productions)

“She started her private acting lessons in June, and then we filmed in July, and then her premiere was in September. So there really were kind of stepping stones and she had so much to look forward to each month,” said Darbi Welbaum, a wish coordinator at the Central & Northern Florida Make-A-Wish branch.

In the movie, Tee, the main character, stands up to a bully and starts a movement, complete with its own SpecialTee hashtag, that leads people all over to embrace what makes them different.

Robin Hoffman, who wrote, directed and produced the short film, which aims to teach children to celebrate their specialties, brought her 27 years of experience working with people with disabilities to the production. She said her previous background as a certified behavior analyst helped her work well with cast and crew on the set.

(From left to right): Evan Hufferd, who plays Zach; Grace Harkins, who plays Tina; and Oliver Fox, who plays Cam, posing with the #MySpecialTee shirt. (Hoffy's Heart Productions)

“If I was going to do this (with) Grace... I needed to treat her just as I would any other actor,” Hoffman said. “So I’m going to support her like I would, I’m going to tell her what I need like I would, I’m gonna give her advice like I would. I’m not going to treat her, like, you know, she has a disability because to me ... that’s not the thing to me ... Everybody has something.”

Welbaum added that people like Hoffman, and the almost 70 people who volunteered their time to help make the movie, were instrumental in making Harkins’ dream a reality.

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“Wishes, you know, they don’t just impact the wish kids... It’s crazy how much it can really bring a community together,” Welbaum said. “We got so many people to come. And she was a superstar. Like, I wish I could relive (the premiere) night over because it was so fun. Her smile was ear-to-ear the whole time. She was saying her cheeks were hurting.”

While Hoffman said the script was her brainchild, she made sure to check in with Harkins and give her character a different disability than the gastrointestinal disorder the actress herself is dealing with.


“She was in the hospital at the time when I met her. So it was this realization of this is real. This is her life. I have an opportunity here to let her escape that life for just a few days and give her something special,” Hoffman said. “I wanted to do right by her. Period. So I called her up and I said, ‘Is it OK if I give you a disability? Not the one that you have. I want to give you a different disability because I want to empower this character to stand up for herself.’ And she said, ‘OK, sure.’”

It’s a move that paid off, for Harkins and audiences who relate to her character, who Harkins said is a girl that doesn’t have functionality in her legs and relies on crutches to move around.

Grace Harkins, who made a wish to be an actress, runs down the red carpet at her film premiere.

“(Harkins) said in her interview, that, you know, it was great because she related to the character so well. She knew she had struggles like she had in real life ... but it wasn’t her. So she didn’t have to take on that. And I don’t know, it was such a beautiful thing,” Hoffman said. “That’s all we want. I just wanted to keep going for Grace and for itself because the message is something that I would love to get out there.”

The reason she transitioned from the field of psychology to filmmaking was to educate people on stories like these.

“The whole (reason) I got into film was with a baking show because I have celiac disease and it’s really, really difficult to find quality, good baked goods that are gluten free, that you don’t pay an arm and a leg for. And so I wanted to teach people how to do that. So I had a baking show... I would bring a guest in with a disability,” she said.

(From left to right): "SpecialTee" actor Evan Hufferd, actress Grace Harkins and director, writer and producer Robin Hoffman. (Hoffy's Heart Productions)

While they were baking, Hoffman and her guest would talk about their diagnosis and the challenges and successes that came with it in an effort to lift the veil that often shrouds the taboo subject of disability.

“So (through the show) people can learn two things. They can learn how to bake a delicious recipe. And they can learn about somebody, they can see somebody, they can hear somebody with whatever specific disability they were talking about that day,” the filmmaker said. “And they’re fully functional... and they have great personalities, and they have so much to offer. And that’s what I wanted people to see.”

It’s the same type of message audiences see in “SpecialTee,” which you can watch below. Hoffman said audiences can also look forward to a documentary on the making of “SpecialTee,” which is in production now.

And to learn more about the Make-A-Wish Foundation and how it helps critically ill children, click here.

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