Lebanon, Pa. – On any given Thursday afternoon, Dee Cook is busy picking up youths to take them to Girl’s Circle, an empowerment activity led by Advocates and staff at Lebanon County’s Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), Inc.
Most recently, Cook, Lebanon County’s YAP program coordinator, gave a ride to 11 year-old Gabriella (who goes by Gabby), and Brittney, age 14, who thanks to her and their YAP Advocate Kristie Houck now have a new hobby in acting. Both girls joined Cook in becoming cast members in “The Pony Expresso,” a melodrama full of puns and jokes that ran from late February to early March and was produced by The St. James Players.
YAP is a national nonprofit in 32 states and the District of Columbia that partners with youth justice, child welfare, behavioral health, and other systems to provide trauma-informed community-based services as an alternative to youth incarceration, congregate care, and neighborhood violence. YAP provides unique wraparound services that they often extend to siblings and other relatives of program participants. YAP staff felt Gabby and Brittney could benefit from tools to help meet their goals of being more sociable. As part of their services with YAP, the youth learned about and accepted an opportunity to add acting to their toolkit.
Four weeks before the play opened, Gabby, Brittney and Cook started rehearsals, which Cook and Houck often times drove them to.
“It wasn’t very long,” Cook said of the time between being cast and the first show. “(The girls) made a lot of new friends. In theater everyone is nice and everybody fits in.”
Cook met Gabby and Brittney during their intake process at YAP. As part of YAP’s Girl Circle Thursday evening empowerment forum, they journal, talk, learn a lesson, do crafts, garden, and participate in other educational or fun activities while being provided with a hot meal. The goal of the peer group is to have positive, healthy, social interactions and relationships with their families and peers.
Houck, a college student who has been an Advocate with YAP for two years, said Gabby and Brittney clicked immediately in Girl’s Circle, which has helped with their overall development.
“As a youth advocate, I think it’s really good that we can help them connect with the community more, especially since we know that it’s helpful for at-risk youth,” Houck said, adding that she saw the play and thought both girls did an amazing job. “They looked very confident on stage and it was good to see how they progressed and how they’ve grown.”
In the play, Gabby’s character was “Spice,” who loves “Sugar,” and they are never apart, she said.
“It was my first play,” said Gabby, who learned about stage presence and facing the audience. “It was really fun.”
Brittney had an ensemble role. It included stage presence, singing, telling jokes and getting the audience to participate.
“I was excited about the play,” she said, adding that she was shy before she was cast. “I am interested in acting in the future. I liked that everyone gets along and I love how everyone is nice. It became like a second family for me.”
Cook played “Dee Café,” and got pulled into participating in the play when she took the girls to audition.
“It was a really good introduction into theater for the girls,” Cook said. “I saw the raw talent, which is what the director saw too. The theater is a place where everybody belongs. It’s a major plus for our kids.”
During the experience, Gabby and Brittney learned theater etiquette and Cook noticed improvements to their self-confidence. Karen Dundore-Gulotta, founder of the non-profit The St. James Players and director of the play, prides herself on community service and education whether it’s about life or theater arts. She works with a lot of kids; is able to meet them where they’re at, and will find a part for any youth who are interested in participating. She says both girls blossomed.
“Brittney went from always having her head down and not having any eye contact to making eye contact, holding her head up, speaking clearly and a lot more smiles,” said Dundore-Gulotta, who is also a foster parent. “Gabby gained a lot of confidence too. She came in for some one-on-one time and private lessons to learn how to move around the stage, where your feet need to be pointed and other things. She really understood stage movement and was very enthusiastic.”
Brittney even plans to participate in the next upcoming play, “Anne of Green Gables – The Musical.”
“At first I was shy, but then I got over it and now I like talking,” Gabby said. “It really changed everything. I was not used to being social and socializing with other people, but now I am.”
Dundore-Gulotta will be offering a special screening for YAP participants to see the “Anne of Greene Gables – The Musical,” at the end of May.