Gaston & Catawba

Performance shines spotlight on abuse, neglect

Kyla Little remembers waking up, alone in her house, without her mother. She would have to climb up on the kitchen counters to search for something to eat.

After the Department of Social Services took Little from her mother, she moved in with father, where she still lives.

Now 18 and a senior at St. Stephens High School, Little will share a monologue of the neglect she survived, as part of a creative arts show and service project by the St. Stephen’s play production class.

Through monologues, spoken word poetry, music, and photography, students will shine a spotlight on child abuse and neglect, drawing from true stories collected by the local Guardian ad Litem program as well as personal testimonies from Little and other students.

“I really believe in art therapy,” said Little. “I really think that art heals, and (telling my story) really shows the progress that I’ve made.

Molly Rice, theater arts director at St. Stephens, explained the show will employ art as a force of healing and also to honor the voices of abused children, awaken empathy in audience members, and even compel people to act.

Those who attend the show should not expect a passive, sit-down theater experience.

It’s more of a “shindig,” Rice explained.

The students will perform their pieces at stations throughout the museum, and play production class alumni will guide audience members in groups from one station to the next. Tours will begin in the Coe Gallery.

“You’re kind of creating a sense of taking (the audience members) out of their comfort zones a bit, where they’re not just a viewer or voyeur or a fly on the wall,” said Rice.

Complimentary wine and hors d’oeuvres will be served, and Guardian ad Litem volunteers will provide attendees with information about becoming a guardian. The program provides trained, independent advocates to represent and promote the best interests of abused and neglected children in the court system and to work toward a plan that will ensure the children are in a safe, permanent home.

Michelle Shield, a local GAL volunteer, estimated that of the 232 children in foster care in Catawba County, 80 do not have an assigned guardian.

For children without a guardian, the county supervises the case, but those children go without the support and advocacy a personal guardian can provide.

“These children need a voice that is solely their own in court, that is looking after their best interest,” said Shield. As a guardian, “you are the eyes and the ears for the judge of this child.”

Carson Gantt, a 15-year-old sophomore at St. Stephens, said she hoped the show would inspire audience members to volunteer as a guardian.

“People are so comfortable, they don’t know what’s going on,” Gantt said. “We have the possibility this time to make a really big difference…getting people really involved, if we’re successful.”

‘This is who we are’

The performance will be Rice’s fourth time challenging her students to create theater that doubles as community service. Last year, the play production class raised $460 for the Grace House Day Shelter in Hickory with a performance about homelessness.

This year, GAL provided the students with 12 stories of abused and neglected children because, for legal reasons, students could not meet the children in person. Even one step removed from the children, some of the students feared the stories would be too painful for them to explore deeply, Rice said. But they chose to commit to the project anyway.

“They decided, ‘no, we’re going to do it, this is who we are, what we do,’” said Rice.

Olivia Wilson, a 17-year-old senior, said she viewed taking on the children’s stories, painful as they may be, as an essential part of making art.

“We have to put ourselves … in (the children’s) places, and that’s what we were told to do as an artist – to think how they would feel,” said Wilson. “It’s heartbreaking, but it motivates you that much more to be their voice, because they can’t have one … I’ve learned how beautiful and important it is to ‘torch-bear.’ ”

“Good theater to me makes you think, makes you consider something that you hadn’t before, and that’s what I want to do with my life – it’s to shed light,” said Wilson.

Wilson will tell the story of a neglected child, by weaving original spoken word poetry with pieces of the song, “Mama Said,” by The Shirelles.

“What struck me when I read (the child’s) story was that all she wanted was for her mother to choose her … so my piece is about the need for love and attention,” said Wilson.

Students Irvin Naldonado and Ashton Burgess are collaborating on a photography piece, staging scenes that capture the essence of the children’s stories. Burgess, a 17-year-old senior, described one shot that will portray a child on a bed, trying to protect him or herself from a hand wielding a belt.

Naldonado, a 16-year-old junior, described a particular story that resonated with him: a young woman on the verge of killing herself, who began to heal by making art with supplies given by the Children’s Assistance Fund of the Catawba Valley GAL Association.

The fund collects donations to support the children and teenagers in activities that help them feel normal – like making art or getting to go on the school band trip, Naldonado said.

Naldonado explained he understood the need to create art to survive painful times.

“That’s one of the ways that I’m still here,” Naldonado said.

Little, whose father and sister will attend her performance, said she hopes her monologue will not only reveal how much she’s healed through art, but also galvanize her community to help other children heal.

“I just hope that people will realize that this is a prominent (problem) in our county, because this kind of thing really does happen,” said Little.

Rice described the performance’s two-fold potential: supporting abused and neglected children while instilling in her students a life-long dedication to advocacy.

“Of course they’re going to be advocates,” said Rice. “They’re enlightened and awake. If they see the wrong, they’re going to help.