Teens visiting Wheaton to discuss hard issues, offer hope
They're not just another group of teens singing and dancing for fun.
Their messages are heavy: suicide, child abuse, drug use, abusive relationships, bullying.
"These are tough issues. These are true stories," said Ray Moffitt, founder of the troupe. "It's life. Life has problems, and the important thing is how we deal with them."
That's why Moffitt formed MWAH!, which stands for Messages Which Are Hopeful!, in 1993. The troupe of young performers travels throughout the state, performing energy-filled shows that teach their peers how to cope with life's most difficult moments.
"Kids need to learn that at an early age, so when they become older they can pass on a more healthy message to their kids," Moffitt said. "We have to try to break this cycle of handling things the wrong way."
On Monday, the group will put on two performances at Monroe Middle School, at the request of assistant principal Susan Baldus. In the morning, students will take part in a nearly two-hour assembly with the performers. At 7 p.m., any student or parent residing in Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 is welcome to see a second performance at the school, 1855 Manchester Road.
Moffitt said he understands there might be some hesitation from parents and school staff before the event, considering the issues that will be discussed.
"We wouldn't be invited back by this school if they didn't really like what we did," Moffitt said.
He said the troupe last visited the school in January 2012. "I think the bottom line is how these issues are dealt with during the presentation," he said. "I think we do it with good taste and with much compassion and a really caring type attitude."
About a dozen troupe members ranging from age 9 to 16 will dance, sing and interact with students during the shows.
"Our performers, by design, are the same age as the audience members, and that makes a huge difference," Moffitt said, adding that it is more impactful than having an adult lecture students about making good choices.
It makes such a difference, in fact, that principals often comment on how awe-struck they are with the attentiveness of the students, Moffitt said.
One member, a freshman at Wheaton Warrenville South, will describe how she has coped with her parents' divorce. Another member, a 13-year-old from Addison, will tell how his grandparents saved him and his autistic brother from their parents, who were abusing drugs.
Two adults will speak, including a mom who lost her 12-year-old son to suicide and Joel Clousing of Wheaton, whose son Keenan died from a heroin overdose last year.
There will be several lighthearted parts of the show too, including an improv piece and recognition of students at the school who have "gone the extra mile" to help their classmates.
At the end of the show, every student will take part in a roundtable discussion over lunch with teachers and counselors. About 50 students hand-picked by the school will participate in a more focused debriefing session, to offer additional opinions on what was presented.
"That's the most important part of the whole day," Moffitt said. "Those kids, with the counselors and social workers at the school, will have a chance to tie in what they've experienced in their own personal lives. What our performance tries to do is be a catalyst. We touch on some very, very heavy issues that affect kids in schools and it's important that schools follow up on this."