On Wednesday Dec 7, 2011 Phoenix House kicked off the West Side Story Project with its first workshop at the Wyandanch Memorial High School. There were 18 kids who reluctantly came to the auditorium, some of them told us that they couldn't stay for the entire workshop but we must have done something right because all 18 of them stayed, participated AND enjoyed themselves. It was fantastic!
On a side note, I later found out that of the kids that participated in the WSSP there were a couple of them who have already been in trouble and some of them were the kids that never participate in anything. I definitely consider this an accomplishment!
The kids engaged in diction exercises, movement activities, acted out short skits and got to interact with Phoenix House staff and Police Officers from Suffolk County Police Department. The goal of this project will be to have the students express themselves creatively while participating in a program that uses the themes from West Side Story to address issues such as youth violence, bullying, gangs, interracial tensions and cultural conflicts. Students from the Milton L. Olive Middle School at Wyandanch will also be participating in this program.
Yesterday (Dec 14) we had our second gathering of students (about 12-14 kids), police officers and PH staff. Together we watched the first 45 minutes of the movie and then paused to have some discussion. We asked the students to tell us what the themes were that they saw and if they could relate to what they had seen. That conversation was followed with some very raw discussion of how the police were viewed in the movie and then how the police are viewed in Wyandanch. Some very honest conversation took place and the SC Police Officers handled the situation with grace and ease by sharing a couple of on the job stories which provided insight and got the students to look at certain situations from a different point of view. Students also had the opportunity to share their experiences with officers in the community. The situations were broken down, discussed and processed to the point where the PO's were able to be seen not just as "cops" but as human beings. The West Side Story Project is about changing perceptions and stereotypes, and yesterday we started to do just that.
In the future we look forward to additional theatre workshops with Tom Demenkoff from PossibleArts (our very own theatre professional), as well as weekly activities to include (but not limited to) creating Public Service Announcements on issues of violence, creating a mural or posters expressing non-violence & hopeful themes, an open mic night where students will recite their own poetry and (fingers crossed) a youth summit in the Spring. We hope to continue to build on the excitement that the kids are expressing about this project and let them create and experience a true collaboration and relationship between the school community, SC Police Department and Phoenix House.
Let's keep up the great work!
Beth Gabellini, M.S., L.M.S.W.
Director of Mobile Services
Phoenix House of New York