Showcasing 20 Years of Programming: MCC's YouthReach

In 2000 Berkshire County Juvenile Court Justice Paul Perachi approached Kevin Coleman and his colleagues at Shakespeare & Co. in Lenox with a bold idea. The judge, a former high school principal, had seen Shakespeare & Co.’s success with his students. Now, he asked, would they offer teenagers brought before him in juvenile court a choice as an alternative to sentencing: time in a youth detention center, or Shakespeare.

Thus was born Shakespeare in the Courts, a national model program for at-risk youth that Judge Perachi counts among his proudest accomplishments. Shakespeare in the Courts is built around the idea that the Shakespeare’s deeply human stories speak directly to teenagers facing a dramatic crossroads in their young lives. Participants meet four times a week over the course of six weeks. The process incorporates the daily realities confronting the teens into the rehearsal process, allowing them to connect with Shakespeare’s text on a personal, visceral level. The goals for the participants are to learn, through rehearsal and performance, how to articulate their thoughts and feelings, listen to and respect the feelings of others, make and keep a commitment through personal investment, take ownership of the project, and foster a sense of accomplishment both individually and as a group.

“When we first teamed up with Judge Perachi and others to launch this program, some people scratched their heads,” says Coleman, S&Co. Director of Education. “But we’ve been able to show the positive impact that can be made in these young people’s lives when you encourage them to articulate their thoughts and feelings, work cooperatively, and rise to the challenge of performance. The need for this kind of challenging experience is obvious when you meet these kids. What might be less obvious is how Shakespeare meets and surpasses these needs.”

Shakespeare in the Courts has also been sustained from the beginning by the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s YouthReach Initiative. This year marks the 20th anniversary of YouthReach with events that spotlight the role of quality after school experiences in the arts, humanities, and sciences for at-risk youth.

The centerpiece of this effort is Unite/Celebrate/Activate: National Summit on Creative Youth Development, which takes place in Boston March 27-29. Why Massachusetts? Because it is home to some of the nation’s best programs in this field, routinely honored by the U.S. President’s Committee on the Arts & the Humanities, another summit partner along with the National Guild for Community Arts Education. Their effort represents the maturing of a field of practice and recognition that creativity is a uniquely effective tool for adolescent growth and development.

“The arts, humanities, and sciences provide powerful environments and vehicles for youth development,” writes Dr. Lauren Stevenson in research commissioned in advance of the summit. “These disciplines themselves center on processes of creative inquiry and creative expression—they are avenues through which youth can develop and express their understanding of their internal and external worlds and their relationship to the larger human experience.”

Youth programs grounded in the arts and culture, Stevenson writes, “are not only preparing young people to be artists, scholars, and scientists, they are helping them to develop the personal, social, and intellectual skills and capacities they need to contribute and succeed in school, life, and work.”

Those in Central and Western MA who are interested in YouthReach and the programs it supports are welcome to join MCC at the Wistariahurst Museum in Holyoke next Tuesday, March 11.

The Care Center in Holyoke, funded in part by YouthReach, is the host of the event; and the center’s executive director, Anne Teschner, was the original coordinator for YouthReach at the MCC two decades ago.

The free event will include poetry, theater, photography, and visual arts, focusing on current work form the YouthReach programs in the region, and refreshments will be served. For more information, contact Tzivia Gover, The Care Center, at 413-532-2900.

Author: Greg Liakos

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