Janet Lee Stinson has dedicated much of her adult life to helping others.
A longtime English teacher, department head and author of instructional textbooks, Stinson is also known for conducting spiritually uplifting journey dance classes as well as selfless acts like hosting memorial ceremonies for accident victims.
But now the Safety Harbor resident has a project in which she is looking for others to help her, although typical of Stinson’s nature, the project is a screenplay about a man, Arnold “Arnie” Stewart, who also touched many lives himself.
The cause, and the person behind it, led a group of potential investors to Cello’s Charhouse in Safety Harbor last Sunday for a brunch designed to raise funds, and interest, for “The Arnie Movie,” a film about a Canadian man who turned his lifelong struggle with low literacy into a mission to help kids.
“When I first met Arnie in 2002, I was teaching at a school in Canada, and he came in to speak to the kids,” Stinson explained.
“When they heard his story, how he ate from dumpsters and lived in parked cars, many of my kids – some of them really tough teens – started crying.”
“I knew right then that Arnie had changed my life, and I had to tell his story.”
Despite her determination to chronicle Arnie’s life from a high school dropout who couldn’t read or write to one of Canada’s most sought after inspirational speakers, the journey from the day Stinson met Stewart to the brunch at Cello’s has been a long and trying one.
In the ten years since their initial encounter, Janet Lee quit teaching, moved from Canada to Florida, and then witnessed Arnie, the man who was her inspiration for so long, pass away from lung cancer in 2012.
“I flew back to Canada and saw him in the hospital just before he died,” she recalled tearfully.
“He held my hand and said to tell kids to never be afraid and to always ask for help.”
That mantra had become Stewart’s motto.
In fact, the words are emblazoned on his signature “Arnie cards,” which are simple tokens that helped Stewart reach troubled kids throughout the Canadian school system.
“So many kids who received those cards opened up about their own struggles,” Stinson said.
“Arnie changed so many lives by telling kids not to be afraid to speak up about their problems.”
“Not alone any more”
That final meeting with Stewart convinced Stinson to re-double her efforts to get the Arnie Movie made.
“In January I decided to finish the Arnie project after two years of grieving,” she said.
“I quit my job, decided to write the screenplay, and found a group of professionals at Indie Studios in St. Pete that I thought could help me with it.”
Although she was nervous at first having to deal with film industry insiders, as it turned out, Stinson had come to the ideal place to tell Arnie’s story.
Joe Davison, a writer, producer, director, actor and founder of the studio, was immediately moved by Stewart’s story, coming from a family that suffered with literacy and dropout issues himself.
“I didn’t do well in school and was always told I would never be a writer,” Davison said at Cello’s.
“I love it when somebody tells me I can’t do something, because that makes me want to do it even more.”
As soon as Stinson related Arnie’s story to Davison, he knew he wanted to take the project on.
“He asked who was producing it and I said no one,” she recalled. “And he said you’re not alone any more.”
After hammering out the screenplay in 30 hours over three weeks, Stinson and Davison are now trying to get Arnie’s story out to a mass audience.
The pair is so convinced that the tale is tailor made for a feature film that they are attempting to get some serious Hollywood heavyweights interested in the project.
“The goal is to get Ron Howard to direct it, big stars to play Arnie and Janet Lee, and make this a big Hollywood film,” Davison said, adding he has already used an industry contact to help get the script on the Oscar-wining director‘s desk.
“We’re creating a buzz, trying to get the word out now,” Stinson added, noting they are hoping to raise $30,000 in order to help facilitate the production.
In addition to meeting with potential investors, Joe and Janet Lee are mounting a strong social media campaign, urging supporters to tweet celebs like Ron Howard (#RealRonHoward), Henry Winkler (#hwinkler4real) and Ellen Degeneres (#TheEllenShow) in order to spark interest in the project.
Stinson said she’s going to do a documentary about Stewart no matter what happens with the feature film.
But she has already envisioned herself sitting on Ellen’s couch, discussing Arnie’s story with the popular daytime talk show host.
“I made a promise to Arnie and myself that I would see this project through to the end,” she said, once again getting emotional thinking about her late friend.
“I believe this a story that needs to be told, and I think a lot of people are going to benefit from hearing it.”
If you have any questions, contact Janet Lee Stinson at TheArnieMovie@gmail.com or 727-744-1092.