Success stories abound as Free Spirit Media turns 10

Free Spirit Media high school students at work on location for a documentary

Jeff McCarter has no regrets about having left his successful film and TV career to start Free Spirit Media, which, since 2001 has put 2,500 underserved urban youth “on the path to tell their stories in this crazy industry.”

On Thursday, June 9, Free Spirit Media will celebrate its “10th incredible anniversary” at Café Brauer at Lincoln Park Zoo, to help raise funds for FSM’s continuing work in its partner schools.  

McCarter spent 10 years working at Ch. 11 and ABC News in New York, and with directors Ron Howard, Steven Soderbergh and Chicago’s Peter Elliott.  He recalls how he loved the storytelling and collaboration, but was frustrated by the lack of diversity in the industry.

“I wanted to plant the seed about the skills of critical thinking, teamwork and communications with kids of different backgrounds and start them on the pathway of telling their own stories and working in this crazy industry,” he says.   

Currently, 600 youngsters a year participate in programs in five schools, headquartered at North Lawndale College Prep, and one youth center.  

Jeff McCarter, Free Spirit Media founder/executive producerThe staff consists of 17 dedicated professionals, who have media experience and are interested in youth development and education.  They teach media literacy and how to produce documentaries, short films, PSAs, newscasts and sports shows. 

“Our kids produced the gun violence PSA that won an Emmy last year against the pros,” McCarter says like a proud father.

FSM’s annual $1 million budget comes from a variety of grants and sponsors.  “We also receive contracts from the schools we work with, which is a good part of the equation and a huge vote of confidence for what we’re doing.  If a school wants a $100,000 program they only have $50,000 – we’ll work to raise the rest of the money.”

It’s obvious that McCarter, son of John McCarter, CEO of the Field Museum, has a contagious passion for what he’s doing and for FSM’s accomplishments over the past challenging decade.  

What he finds so rewarding is seeing how the kids love what they are learning and doing. “They find it empowering to tell their own stories and reach their audience and impact their world.”  

As for success stories, “We have lots of them,” McCarter states.  “I don’t know the exact number, but a vast majority of our students have graduated from high school and a huge number have gone onto college.  We have a number of kids working in the industry and several landed internships this summer at several sponsor sites.”

Those sponsors include the IPA, Cutters, Optimus, Hootenanny, ABC/7, the Illinois Film Office, Northern Trust and the brokerage firm of Wm. Blair & Co.

The anniversary gala starts at 6 p.m., and the 7 p.m. presentation will include a 5-minute celebration video produced by FSM students. “There’s a great buffet and food and tables for seating, mix and mingling, a silent auction and an iPad as a top raffle prize,” McCarter says, sounding like he can’t wait for Thursday to roll around.  

Tickets at $100 may be purchased here.