A beloved celebrity was dead. The detective was determined to nail the suspect. Never mind that the case was … a tad squishy.

“Did you kill Sponge Bob Square Pants?” the young investigator asked the suspect.

“No! I didn’t do it!” said the accused.

Thankfully for fans of the yellow cartoon hero, the drama was make-believe. The television show was filmed by sixth-graders at an afterschool program staffed by students from Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts. The fun was made possible by a new community service course launched this semester by Dodge College in collaboration with Higher Ground Youth and Family Services, a nonprofit organization that serves at-risk communities in Anaheim and Santa Ana.

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A young future filmmaker at Higher Ground gets an introduction to film equipment with Chapman University sophomore Quinn Halleck.

The film students say they love the service-learning aspect of the course.

“They’re always so excited to see us. They give us attack hugs when we get here,” says Carrie Smith ’19, a television writing and production major.

In the process they also glean more than a few real-world skills by working with children and adapting to whatever mix of youngsters shows up.

“If you want to be a director, you also have to be something of a teacher, too. You’re directing so many different people on set. The skills really kind of correlate,” said Julie Elihu ’20, a film production major.

For the Higher Ground kids, it was real-deal filmmaking.

“I’m really good at the microphone part,” said Catie, 11.

“The cameras are cool. They have a lot of buttons,” said Israel, 12.

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Higher Ground students react with glee to footage they shot with iPads while “on location” in a park playground.

With the help of film students, Higher Ground can maintain a 1-to-4 instructor-to-student ratio in the afternoon workshop. The sixth-graders use iPads to film “on location” in the city park where Higher Ground is located. A studio stocked with retired film equipment from Dodge offers them a taste of working on set. Rows of computers outfitted with software donated by Adobe stand ready for film editing.

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The last stop of the afternoon is editing the TV shorts for posting on the Higher Ground YouTube channel.

The film class is just one of many service programs involving Chapman students. Throughout the month, some 77 student volunteers assist in several afterschool activities, from photography to fitness. The hands-on skills they impart are great, but there are bonus benefits, says Joe Baldo, founder of Higher Ground. The nurturing experience, teamwork and confidence-building the youngsters gain matter most of all, he says.

“Whatever it is we do, whether its playing soccer, or doing art or in this case, filmmaking, it’s yet another way for these kids to interact with positive role models. And we also want to introduce them to other ways of life,” Baldo said. “Most importantly, it gets the interaction going. That’s the main thing.”