October 1996 // Volume 34 // Number 5 // Ideas at Work // 5IAW1

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4-H Peer Theater: Taking Center Stage in Overcoming Obstacles

Peer Theater is a link between self-esteem and cultural awareness among high-risk youth. This article explains the program and how it was a postive experience for both youth and adults in the community.

Joyce Shriner
Extension Agent, Family and Consumer Sciences, 4-H Youth
The Ohio State University
McConnelsville, Ohio
Internet address: shriner.3@osu.edu

Susan Hodson Rinehart
Extension Agent, 4-H Youth Development,
Community Development, Chair
The Ohio State University
Logan, Ohio

Deanna Tribe
District Specialist, Family and Consumer Sciences
The Ohio State University
Jackson, Ohio

Barbara Starkey
Program Assistant, 4-H Youth Development
The Ohio State University
Logan, Ohio

Youth involved in the juvenile court system commonly reflect problematic family histories and inadequate problem solving skills. Faced with overwhelmingly negative situations and few coping mechanisms, these youth often resort to undesirable behaviors. It is generally understood that teens who have low cultural self-esteem are more likely to get in trouble than those who don't. Ohio State University Extension and the Hocking County, Ohio, Juvenile Court joined efforts to provide these young people with positive experiences designed to improve their self-esteem, help them acquire responsibility, discover and develop leadership potential, and practice civic life.

The project was named Peer Theater because of the link between self-esteem and cultural awareness, and the opportunity to showcase the project for members' peers and the public as a means of community participation.

Program objectives included: recruiting and educating high- risk, court-involved youth, raising awareness of local cultural heritage and crucial youth issues, increasing participation in the local 4-H program, providing educational opportunities for high-risk teens, and expanding agency collaborative efforts.

The Peer Theater Team consisted of nine high-risk youth between the ages of 12 and 17, all referred by the county juvenile court. The group met weekly to learn about local culture, to discuss current youth concerns and to develop a theatrical piece.

Sociologists tell us that where we spend our early years, especially up to about age 16, helps to frame our heritage and culture that influence our attitudes, behaviors, and values in life.

Hocking County is located in Ohio's Appalachian region. Federally-defined Appalachia stretches from a few counties in northern Mississippi to southern New York state, parts of twelve states, including 29 counties in Ohio, and all of West Virginia. Negative, unfavorable stereotypes focusing on deficiencies, backward, demeaning, and making fun of people who are often labeled hillbillies have resulted in Appalachian people frequently displaying feelings of shame as well as poor self- image, esteem, and confidence rather than acceptance and pride in who they are.

In working with Appalachian people in the context of cultural diversity, it is important to help them feel better about themselves--who they are and where they live. This requires recognition, understanding, appreciation, and celebration of Appalachian identity.

During the early months of this year-long program, the Peer Theater Team learned about Appalachian culture based upon the concept that knowing who we are -- culture, heritage, traditions and values -- helps us feel better about ourselves and where we live. Team members explored the geographic, economic and social aspects of the Appalachian culture as well as the history of Hocking County and its prominent citizens. As a part of this study, the group compared and contrasted the past and current challenges faced by teens. To further enhance their cultural awareness the teens learned about local food customs and prepared a typical Appalachian meal.

A variety of teaching methods and educational experiences were used to accomplish the program's objectives. These included inviting local historians to guest lecture; taking field trips to historical landmarks; observing a presentation by another peer theater group; participating in bonding and team building activities; studying critical youth issues; and working with a thespian to learn about acting and stage productions.

This resulted in: the teens developing a play based on prominent local citizens that they presented in historical costumes; the creation of a puppet play which illustrated the value of telling the truth and the importance of family support; and the presentation of a prepared puppet play that emphasized self-worth, inner strength, and being able to overcome the less desirable things in life.

The 4-H Peer Theater experience culminated with performances given for the Hocking County Youth Advisory Board, the County Historical Society's Christmas Open House and for the Special Friends (a group similar to Big Brothers and Big Sisters). Nearly 200 adults and children attended the performances.

This project proved to be a positive experience for team members and the adults involved with it. An audience member commented, "The youth were very well prepared and poised. Youth seemed to enjoy what they were doing. Excellent." Other positive outcomes noted by the Hocking County Juvenile Court include: five of the nine members are no longer involved with the court system; none have been removed from their homes; and none have dropped out of school. Throughout the experience the teens learned the importance of taking responsibility, working together as a team, and contributing to the community in which they live.