Janet Carrus is a thoughtful philanthropist, entrepreneur and engaging film producer whose vibrant energy is contagious and inspires as she answers questions with a combination of seriousness and lightheartedness, a no-nonsense woman who helps people help themselves. Janet’s motto is: “Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go!”
We spoke at her penthouse apartment in Manhattan with a spectacular view of the city skyline. Her penetrating green eyes captivates as she explains the urgency of helping those who are powerless in society without “…the resources, the voice, and visual presence.” Sitting outdoors on her terrace above the city fray, our conversation explores how she removed her ‘blindfold,’ in the process not only improving the lives of others but also improving her own life as well.
Currently, Janet Carrus is seeking wider distribution for the film, MUSICAL CHAIRS. Producing the movie evolved from a convergence of two passions: her philanthropic work and ballroom dancing. The story revolves around the challenges faced by a ballroom dancer crippled in a car accident. After months of living with self-doubt and self-pity, Mia learns to overcome the limits of her paralyzed body through the support provided by Armando, new wheelchair-bound friends, and her own rekindled motivation. Janet herself has experience with the world of ballroom dance where an able-bodied partner joined wheels and whirls with a dancer in a wheelchair. The movie’s theme of not giving up in the face of incredible odds encapsulates the heart and thrust of Janet Carrus’ work.
Ellen Ruth Topol: What makes your heart sing?
Janet Carrus: What makes my heart sing is when I accomplish something that most people cannot do. I have a vision of myself that I am much taller than 5’3”. I believe that I am much more powerful than most people think I am. When I do accomplish something because of perseverance, a creative insight or something that makes a difference, I am happy since I do not want to go through this life not making a difference.
ERT: Is this what motivated you to establish The Gerald & Janet Carrus Foundation?
JC: We had two different takes on that. Gerry being the business genius and self- made man had the practical estate planning, taxes issues and all of that. I, on the other hand, happened to be much more aware of the world. I think being a mother that always changes life and you start seeing the world differently once you have children that have to come into this crazy mix to see what you can do to keep them safe and prepare them. So, that was it and the Foundation is a little bit of him and a little bit of me.
ERT: What is the Mission of the Foundation?
JC: The Mission of the Foundation is to give people who do not have the power, the resources, the voice, the visual presence in society a little bit of a kick-start or means to get to another place, and to make them feel, or to be aware, or to start seeing themselves as having that power where they are able to make some changes.
ERT: There are so many worthy causes in the world how do you decide?
JC: My way is that it just comes to me. I do not want to do anything that some big corporation or somebody else is going to do. I want to do something that does not have all that red tape and bureaucracy people have to deal with to get something accomplished. I like to focus on groups that do not have their political power base, that are kind of overlooked by society, for the most part, and that is going to make the difference now. I cannot stand waiting for something to happen. So, whatever I do has to be an immediate gratification in a reasonable amount of time. I need a beginning; I need a middle and end. I need it within a year so I know I am going to be here to see it finished. Since I have commitment issues, I do not want to be married to something for a very long time. I am like a SWAT team: come in, do it and then move on and find somebody else to help. For, I believe, the point of helping is to have the situation take on a life of its own, to actually become self-sustainable, to develop their own power and interest in what they are doing. So, I do not want to take care of anybody anymore. I want to be able to help so that somebody can come in or some group or situation can take it on for themselves; and, then, feel that satisfaction of I can do this!
ERT: Blindfold magazine focuses on socially conscious people, who give back to the world and think outside the box. Is this the way you would describe yourself?
JC: Yes. I think if there is any reasonable possibility that you can bend the rules, look the other way, put a little pressure or work a little harder that things get done. It does not have to be the way it always was for the way it always was no longer works. So, if you want to say that I think outside the box, I guess I do. And, I think that I kind of like that.
ERT: What qualities in growing up would you say supports your ability to think outside the box? Would you tell us something about your background?
JC: I think being born at the end of WWII. They should have a course on life the first 10 years after WWII, and, especially about women’s experience. Everything was so rigid. When you think that women should always be in the home, should always be pretty, excited to get a new refrigerator and none of that made sense to me. I felt so angry and frustrated for myself and for others all these ridiculous rules and regulations. Also, I am the oldest of eight; so, I guess I was a parent at the age of two. Hopefully, for the rest of my life, I am now doing whatever it was that I was not able to do at a younger age.
ERT: You, certainly, have taken off the blindfold in the sense of seeing issues that need to be addressed and going in like a SWAT team to make change. What do you believe allows you to make that shift because so many people are unable to effect change?
JC: I think because I am an Aquarian I do better. I think I was just aware of things and it registered. I always reacted to what I felt was not fair whether it was just something personal in my family situation, in school or something in the world. My biggest struggle is when I am confused over something. So, I question: what am I missing or why can’t get I get from A to B? What’s the problem here? And, then, once I peel things away, and, even when I was little, I was always trying to figure out the universe. I always asked “why?” I guess that’s it. And, not having. There was a lot of not having. Maybe being the oldest everyone else got and you had to shift for yourself and become your own person in your own mind. I never knew who I was until recently. Because I did not have the experience of nurturing, I nurtured myself in a way by nurturing others.
ERT: Is your involvement with competitive ballroom dancing something recent in your life?
JC: Yes. It is very new and it is, probably, outside of being a parent, it is the only thing that I stuck to ever in my whole life. I have never committed myself to anything, outside of my children and my grandchildren. So, when I got back from a trip and my dance teacher, Edgar Osorio, says we have a competition, I respond, “You cannot be making plans for me.” But, then, I have a way of figuring out what I want to do with my life so that when something is presented to me in some shape or form I sleep on it. I visualize that the lid is going down and I am laying there with my list of would’ve should’ve could’ve and with this particular thing am I going to be sorry that I did not do this. If the answer is yes, then no matter what it is I do it. So, I did one and PS we competed for all of 2010 and all of 2011. We did 37 competitions and we placed second in the United States.
ERT: So, did your interest in ballroom dancing and your interest in philanthropy work with people with disabilities lead to the film MUSICAL CHAIRS?
JC: Yes, it was just something that just took over, has a life of its own. For the people who have seen the film, it has impacted their lives. The movie changed everybody on the set. Everybody came on because it was a job and by the time it finished it was no longer just a job.
Everyone saw disabilities in a different way, gender and cultural experiences in a different light. If I am going to represent the population with disabilities it is going to be represented as people with a disability not disabilities with a person attached to it. Everyone that has seen the film feels very positive about the portrayal. I had nightmares thinking they are going to get out there on that dance floor and dragging all these poor souls around on wheelchairs and that is the last thing that I want. . Susan Seidelman’s direction is amazing and she really got it, the wheelchair dancing aspect. They looked just like I had it in my mind, the position in the chairs. We had the largest number of disabled actors in a film according to the Screen Actors Guild. I am very pleased with that.
I have a background in dancing in wheelchair competitions because when I did the Dance Showcase for The Center for Discovery in 2004 I went to Amsterdam and took workshops in wheelchair dance. So, I was out there sweating. At the Dance Showcase, we had four residents with multiple severe disabilities and four partners and I was one. There is a gentleman that goes every year to the fundraiser; and, every year at the end of the gala he makes a donation of $10,000 and that night he gave a $100, 000. So, that was really cool. And, one of the mothers said she never thought she would see her daughter ever have a recital. And, their expression, the energy and the possibility of this experience of moving and feeling the movement touched everyone.
ERT: In the film, Armando says, “It’s not about vanity. Dancing is about emotion. It’s about how you feel when you move and how that movement makes you feel.” In your experience with ballroom dancing, would you agree with Armando’s perception?
JC: Yes. We talked about this a lot with the dancers. We are kind of on the cutting edge of issues. We went through all these other movements that have happened in the world like civil rights, women’s rights, gender issues, gay rights, and, probably, one of the last ones left is disabilities. So, the whole point of the movie is not to show the disability; but, to show people what they need to fulfill their human spirit and to inspire them to overcome boundaries. And, just do it! I know from my own personal experience it took me a while to breathe into the joy of dance without getting caught up in what I look like, whether I am doing it right, whether I look funny, all this stuff, which as an able-bodied person can only be magnified by someone with disabilities.
ERT: How did you become an entrepreneur with Kinetic Innovative Seating System (KISS) to develop, through ergonomics, a better seat for wheelchairs so that people confined to them can move (allow the spine to flex) and aids in relief of pressure sores?
JC: Three years ago, my sister introduced me to Susan Farricielli, who has been working on the project for the last 10 years. She is a dynamite Professor at Yale. When Susan was explaining to me about the seat, I said, “Let’s just do it!”
ERT: You were first to buy an additional ambulance for the Big Island of Hawai’i for they only had one for the entire island.
JC: That was, probably, one of my first good moment with these types of endeavors. We found a needy rural community in Hawai’i, one of the poorest places in the USA. We drove forty-five minutes on this one-way road to this little community out by the ocean. I said, “I would like to do something. What do you guys need?” And, I am finding that when you approach people, especially people that have not had a power base when you have not been seen or heard, they are skeptical. The Fire Chief explained that there is only one ambulance on this island and it is based in Hilo; and, if we call and it is out, there is a problem. So, I said: “I will give you an ambulance.” So, they inquired, “Who do you have to go back and talk to?” So, I said, “No offense; but, I did not take 12 hours to get here to turn around and get permission. I said, “I AM IT!” I think power. It took a lot of red tape, but I did it. It is very difficult to give money away when there is so much red tape, bureaucracy, and politics involved. The headline read: Janet Carrus accomplished in one day what the state of Hawai’i could not do for 25 years. That was pretty cool. And, that’s an example of thinking outside the box. Let’s just do it!
ERT: Did you have a similar experience with the Shinnecock Indians helping them?
JC: Yes! I showed up at the Shinnecock Indian Reservation. They were very skeptical. I said I know what it is like not to have anything. There was time that I had only twenty-five cents that was it and a baby. I was not born into wealth. I happened to have married it and lucked out. The most important thing for anyone who gets out from under is education, so we started a college fund for the high school students, who were going to go into college that year and an early childhood center for the ones that are coming up. We have given approximately 15 scholarships and my only requirement was no tolerance for drugs or alcohol and the graduates need to come back and give back to their community. It has done well for them and helped them to get more funding.
ERT: You were first introduced to The Center for Discovery by Dr. George and Alice Todd; and, it is another project where you have touched lives. You won the Green Shovel Award in 2008. How did you become involved?
JC: At that time, they were not able to get funding. So, Gerry said, “What do you want to do?” I said to Gerry give them whatever they want. He said, “You can’t give them everything.” I said, “Why not?” I said, “Fine, give them what you want.” And, knew I will fix it later. Because of our grant, the national health looked at them more seriously, blindfold | and additional funding has just snowballed on and on. After Gerry died, I gifted them some more so I received the Green Shovel Award. And, that’s when I pulled another one of my power punches because if you want me you are going to have to do it my way. I am not just going to be a talking head and that is how the wheelchair showcase gala came about. And, from that came the seed, the idea, for the film MUSICAL CHAIRS.
ERT: It seems like you have great courage.
JC: Either that or no sense. Sometimes no sense works better for you just go and do it. I think as you get older what do you have to lose? They can’t divorce you and they can’t kill you. What can they do? I do not need my name on a building but I thought it would encourage other people to contribute. The Carrus Institute is a place for parents, family members, and staff to come together for some downtime: Yoga, meditation, for parents to bring their children there to visit with other parents, to have a bite to eat and chill. The Carrus Institute conducts conferences, seminars, training opportunities and wellness opportunities. I mean again none of these were my ideas.
ERT: You plant a seed and a garden grows up around you. I think that is your modus operandi. You inspire others like the man who always gave $10,000 and then gave $100,000. What legacy would you like to leave?
JC: I would like my legacy mainly for my children and my grandchildren to open their eyes to see that things need to be done and to try. You do not have to take on the whole world. You just do something within your scope, within your range, and it always has a ripple effect. I would like to be remembered as at least I tried to do something. I did some things better than others; but, the intention was to help, to change something and to make things better. I was lucky. All my opportunities and life circumstances are like gifts, one gift after another, and to use this to help others. Open your eyes. Figure out what you can do. Find something to do. Like in the film, when Armando’s Father says to him, “Open your eyes there is a whole world out there!” “You can’t have your dreams overnight. What’s the fun of that?” My whole life I have been wishing, hoping, dreaming that there would be a human out there that would say to me: “What can I do? What do you need? Don’t worry we will do it together.” This was Mia’s challenge throughout the movie with Armando. He was there and she could not see it. He had to find a way to let her know that she is not by herself. So, she has a problem. We can work it out. Tell me what you need. I love you and we can do this together. So many lines and so many things from my life are in the film that I appreciate. It has been a great healing process for me and, hopefully, for others. This healing is what is priceless. I hope that it gets to the people who see the worth of it for themselves.
Even though I was in a tribe, a large family, I grew up by myself, in a way, and nobody ever told me anything. The film depicts this young woman, who had everything in front of her when life threw her a curve, she had to re-invent herself. I have made some pretty dumb mistakes in my life and I had to re-invent myself, one step forward two step backs; and, somehow I lucked out. I just find that some of those experiences that I have had with family, with love, with relationships, with children, being the stifling mother that I was for a while, I see myself as various characters in the film.
I think everybody has an obligation to be socially conscious and take off the blindfold and do something no matter how small. It doesn’t have to be to move mountains. The world is a mess. Mother Nature is rebelling. People have no humanity. How much can one person have? So, I think do anything. Do something! …even holding a door for someone. Just show courtesy: Thank you. Please. Smile.
ERT: The Center of Discovery stresses these values: engage, respect, trust, love. JC: It is very simple. It does not cost anything. ERT: Be kind to one another.
JC: Yes! It makes a difference.