Meet the Woman Helping Terminally Ill Kids Realize Their Movie-Making Dreams

Tamika Lamison felt on top of the world when, at 28, she headed to Hollywood to pursue a filmmaking career. But when the bogus $112,000 check she received for the sale of her first script bounced, she knew that she wanted something far different than the typical industry experience.

“I started thinking about ways to make a difference. I didn’t want to spend all my energy on the grind, going for the brass ring,” Lamison, now 48, tells PEOPLE. “I started mentoring and teaching kids filmmaking and I literally fell in love with watching youth fall in love with making films and sharing their stories.”

Filmmaking was Lamison’s passion, but she’d always admired the mission of the Phoenix-based Make-A-Wish Foundation. So, in 2005, she combined her two loves and created the Make-A-Film Foundation, a nonprofit organization that connects children and teens battling terminal illnesses with Hollywood heavy-hitters, helping young patients with limited time to write, produce and premiere their own movies.

The most recent project was 16-year-old Anthony Conti’s zombie flick, The Black Ghiandola, completed just in time for the teen to view the rough cut from his bed at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) before losing his life to stage 4 Adrenal Cortical Cancer in January 2017. Conti collaborated with Scott Kosar (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice) to write the film.

“He was making mini home videos from the time he was 10 years old,” Conti’s father, Brian, told PEOPLE. “He always talked about going to L.A. He would have thought that was amazing.”

He also worked with music therapists to write the closing credits song, “Just Go,” produced by Nine Inch Nails Lead Trent Reznor. Johnny Depp, Laura Dern and J.K. Simmons starred.

“Anthony talked about his film from the minute he got back from L.A. through the two hardest months of his life,” adds music therapist, Lorrie Kubicek, who worked with Conti throughout his illness and accompanied him to Los Angeles for filming. “It was this whole other world he could go to.”

Kubicek says participation in programs like MAFF provide young patients both emotional and physiological boosts.

When battling a terminal illness, “you have no control over anything physically or medically,” she says. “But writing, music, the arts — all of these things give you choices, ways to focus your mind so that pain perception decreases.”

Dr. Steve Pantilat, Director of Palliative Care at the University of California, San Francisco Department of Medicine and author of Life After the Diagnosis: Expert Advice on Living Well with Serious Illness for Patients and Caregivers, agrees. He points to a three-year MGH study comparing advanced lung cancer patients who received palliative care, medical treatment focused on improving quality of life for seriously ill patients, against those receiving only standard medical care. At 12 weeks into the study, depression symptoms in the palliative care group were roughly half those reported in the standard care group. Palliative care patients reported greater reductions in physical symptoms including pain and shortness of breath, and ultimately, survived longer, too – 11.6 months compared to less than nine months for patients receiving standard care.

“No one values a day in their life more than someone who only has a few,” Dr. Pantilat tells PEOPLE. “One of the things people think about when they’re approaching the end of their life is the mark they’ll leave on the world. A film is an incredible legacy that can help others cope and give the patient a sense that ‘there is something about my experience that will live on.’ ”

Thus far, the Make-A-Film Foundation has helped kids produce four narrative films and more than 100 documentary short films, most dealing directly with their illnesses. Clay Beabout, 20, was 11 when he wrote Deep Blue Breath, a half animation/half live-action film about a boy who travels deep inside his body to an animated dream world where he engages in battle against the evil Lord Vater, a monstrous visual manifestation of his disease. Meanwhile, in the waking world, a medical team tries to save his life.

Beabout, now 20 and the only surviving MAFF narrative filmmaker, has Vater’s syndrome, a set of birth defects named for the five primary areas it can affect: vertebrae, anus, trachea, esophagus and renal (kidneys). He has endured 45 surgeries, the first of which was an open-heart procedure at just 3 months old, and credits Lamison and his MAFF experience with helping him to keep an optimistic outlook despite a lifetime of medical issues.

“She has spawned a second life in me,” says Beabout, who is studying engineering, computer science, film and media at the University of Kansas. “She’s given me the ability to be seen and that is priceless.”

As for the Hollywood insiders who volunteer their time with MAFF, the experience often is bittersweet but always worth the effort.

“You fall in love with the child only to realize part way through that you’re going to lose them,” says casting director, producer and actress Adele René, who most recently appeared last year’s Twin Peaks reboot as Lieutenant Cynthia Knox. “There’s a lot of sadness that comes from that, but also a lot of happiness because you are doing what you can to help this person live in happiness in their darkest days.”

Longtime actor J.K. Simmons, currently starring as Howard Silk in Starz’s sci-fi series Counterpart, agrees and urges others in the business to do their part.

“Those of us who are fortunate enough to make a good living doing what we love, and who are fortunate to be healthy and have healthy families, absolutely need to help those far less fortunate realize their dreams,” he tells PEOPLE. “The reward is in the doing, and in the eyes of the young filmmakers and their loved ones, every step of the way.”