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Theater helps children's therapy

| Sunday, Aug. 24, 2003

A Pittsburgh-area acting company and a local counseling center got together to reach troubled children by helping them to stage their own production during a recent two-week summer camp.

Carole Stern and the staff of the Stern Center for Developmental and Behavior Health, formerly the Connellsville Counseling Center, worked with the Gemini Theater Company from Point Breeze.

The camp was created for children 7 to 16 years of age who have had some mental health issues.

The program provided intensive socialization in the supportive summer-camp environment. Children were offered the structure and consistency needed for them to succeed in recreational and social activities.

Stern cited the unique combination of the dramatic arts and mental health therapy. Therapist Tracey Wrona said she too was enthusiastic about the program.

"We were so excited when they (Gemini) approached us," she said

The partnership had some major goals, including:

  • Increasing self-esteem and feelings of self-worth of the children.

  • Providing a safe environment for children with mental health issues.

  • Promoting therapeutic collaboration of dramatic arts and counseling.

  • Offering programs in years to come with growth and expansion to other age groups and counties in Pennsylvania.

  • Enabling each child to develop interpersonal skills needed to successfully function as a member of family, school and community.

  • Fostering positive self-esteem, sense of confidence, strength of character and a positive value system.

  • Helping children learn to take responsibility for their own behavior.

  • Exposing children to a variety of new situations to learn social skills.

    Most of the 12 children who participated in the program have had bonding difficulties for one reason or another, according to Wrona.

    A number of therapies are used by the Stern Center, including those utilizing art, music and theater.

    "There are different intervention techniques that we use with these issues than you would for kids in general," said Wrona. "Dance, music, movement and art are all a different way for them to process stuff."

    During the camp, the therapeutic staff of licensed mental health therapists and Gemini representatives utilized a number of behavioral techniques that enabled children to become more responsible for themselves. In addition, the children got to be a part of a one-of-a-kind experience.

    Stern, a psychologist with 25 years of experience, said she hoped the safe, stable and therapeutic environment would help the children's imaginations, and the understanding that they are not alone in the world, to flourish.

    The finale of the camp was a production scheduled at the State Theatre Center for the Arts in Uniontown. A reception for the cast, their families and the staff was also planned to follow the big show.

    Julie Knapp, a doctoral intern at the Stern Center, said this camp and others held over the summer are part of a master plan to reach children who up until now have been unreachable with other methods.

    Knapp said the center also held a summer camp for autistic children, who were paired with typical kids for role models under the supervision of full-time therapists.

    The theater camp is a good project because it provides something that these children need, but don't get enough of, according to Knapp.

    "It gives them a sense of self-esteem," she said. "To see the finished product, it gives them a sense of accomplishment, especially when they see the audience clapping. These kids don't have enough positive stuff in their lives."

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