Promoting Inclusivity through Creativity

Christina Cannarella - Founder/CVO/Nurse/Mother/ Actress, Mother Road Studios, Tarzana, CA

Article | 01 November 2021
Christina Cannarella is a working mother who is active in her community on the issues of inclusive education. Moving to California has allowed her children to thrive in their educational settings and for her to use her voice and medical training to champion inclusivity. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
It’s fashion day at Mother Road Studios in the Los Angeles suburb of Tarzana, and everyone is getting ready to take part in the fashion show.

Smiles, laughs and excitement fill the room as make-up and wardrobe adjustments take place, while lights flash, cameras click, and parents cheer for their children.

In the middle of all the action we get a chance to speak with Christina Cannarella, founder and Chief Visionary Officer (CVO) of Mother Road Studios an all-inclusive public benefit corporation promoting inclusivity through creativity.

“I moved to California from Wisconsin, for the sake of my two sons Zach and Johnny. I realized that if I wanted my younger son Johnny, who was born with a very rare genetic makeup, to be included and not left behind, I would have to make a change,” Christina reveals.

“When he was three months old Johnny was diagnosed as having an extra part on one of his chromosomes- on chromosome 16. There is actually nobody with this condition that’s been written about in the worldwide database of genetic disorders so it’s extremely rare,” Christina emphasizes. “His dad’s chromosomes were normal as were mine so it’s just kind of a fluke,” she adds.

A dedicated mother, in addition to running her organization, Christina is also a registered nurse, actress, filmmaker and producer, who often takes on the role of medical consultant on numerous sets. Some shows she has worked on include VEEP, Mad Men, and The Mindy Project, amongst others. “I love nursing and working in the medical field, but it wasn’t until after Johnny was born that I actually delved into my creativity,” she says.

Mother Road Studios brings together people of all abilities, along with their parents, families, and caretakers in recognition of their role as advocates of inclusivity. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
“I love being able to explore my creativity in theater, TV, film and whatever creates an awakening and it is quite therapeutic for me. My older son Zach is also extremely creative and has been since he was a kid. He was always interested in acting and performing. He works in the media and film industry now.”

Christina was having difficulty in finding an inclusive educational program in Wisconsin for her son Johnny. It became clear that she would have to actively seek programs outside of her State. “I knew I had to really explore education opportunities for him and what that would look like,” she remembers.

“A friend of mine had given me a magazine that Rosie O’Donnell had interviewed a mom about a school called Chime Charter out here in Los Angeles that was fully inclusive. It was started by a group of parents and I thought I could start something like that in Wisconsin, but it would not be easy because special education had been ingrained into our society there. People with disabilities were excluded and those with intellectual and developmental challenges were institutionalized.”

Making the choice to move to California, Christina was able to get both her sons into the Chime Charter school. The school was fast becoming a model of inclusive education. Students with a variety of learning strengths and challenges would learn together in the classroom without being segregated or discriminated against for their disabilities. This approach was extremely appealing to her. She had seen how Johnny was able to thrive earlier at a daycare when he was around other kids without disabilities.

“I started to notice when he was about three and a half years old, at a daycare and at the gym there that he started walking because he saw other kids walking and wanted to keep up with them- the “typical kids” without disabilities. This made me realize that there was something about being around these kids that was very good for Johnny’s development and his confidence.”

The move and enrolment of both her sons at the charter school proved to be mutually beneficial for all three of them Christina points out.

“The creative component was great for Zach who was able to explore and nurture his creativity, Johnny was around all kinds of kids, and I also discovered how beneficial it was for me as a mother, a nurse, a creative and for my voice as well, which has allowed me to become an advocate too,” Cannarella declares with palpable fervor.

This rehearsal for a fashion show is an example of the creative and engaging activities that take place at Mother Road Studios. Through her work with this organization, Christina hopes that others will show respect and see persons with disabilities as an integral part of society. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
This experience demonstrated the importance of creativity and inclusivity as well as helping her find her voice as an advocate. Christina was keen to move forward which prompted her to establish Mother Road Studios.

Here, she brings persons with disabilities and their families together, with the aim of creating engaging and meaningful inclusive opportunities. With a platform that champions inclusivity through creativity, sustainability and advocacy, for people of all abilities Christina hopes that people begin to view differently abled people as “very integral components to the community,” as she does.

The choice to name the organization Mother Road Studios is a nod to the Route 66 highway also known as the Mother Road and America’s highway. It offered people from the Midwest an opportunity to move to the Western part of the country in search of better opportunities for themselves and their families, much like Christina was able to do.

“The most important thing for me is that they are valued, appreciated, and able to share their gifts with us all. The only way that's going to be is if we include them in our society, compassion, empathy, patience, tolerance, acceptance, understanding, and kindness. This is what I have learned from being around Johnny and this community,” Cannarella emphatically voices.

Scanning the room around her, Christina gets a queue from the deejay that they’ll be ready to start the fashion show in ten minutes. She grins and gives a thumbs up sign back.

“You know, if I didn't do this work, and try to get other people to experience what I've experienced, then I truly believe that I would be doing a disservice to humanity.”