Phoenix House Academies in Los Angeles and Santa Ana, California, have been proud participants in The West Side Story Project, a performing arts program that allows teens suffering from substance abuse to step into the roles of law enforcement and act out various scenarios, both on stage and with visiting law enforcement officers during unrehearsed activities.
The efficiency and impact that this program has on both the teens and the committed professionals who work with them is truly amazing and above all else, touching. This program helps teens who have turned to abuse of drugs and/or alcohol to fill emptiness in their lives, or because of difficulties in their relationiships with family, teachers or friends. The arts and communications skills are an important aspect of rehabilitation and recovery.
Here are some of the top reasons that make Phoenix House’s involvement with the West Side Story Project so special:
The teens who participate in the West Side Story project are exposed to many forms of art- theatre, music, film, and visual art. The students spend time discussing their feelings, reactions, and insights regarding their experience with the subject matter. Under the encouraging guidance of the program coordinators, the students create their own art, using various mediums to express themselves. The process is extremely therapeutic and allows the teens to gain self understanding and a chance to safely discuss and express their beliefs and feelings.
A Stronger Sense of Potential
The West Side Story Project would be nothing without “West Side Story.” The teens sing, act, and dance as characters and ensemble in the iconic musical. The students learn to commit to their rehearsals, and in doing so commit to learning new songs, music, and routine- they literally learn how to vocalize and move in an entirely different manner. Their new roles, although imaginary, give the students a chance to explore with their own personal dynamism. The students learn that they literally can be anyone they want, and in doing so, the West Side Story Project reinforces the power of their personal choice.
A Greater Sense of Awe
One of the most exciting events that happen during the West Side Story Project’s agenda are visits to live performances – including trips to symphony orchestra concerts and theater. For most of the students, the trip counts as their first time seeing a live orchestra. The students get a chance to listen to the beautiful and powerful masterpieces performed by professional musicians – and not one of them comes out of the concert hall without feeling touched and inspired. Not only do the students gain a new respect for the arts, but they are constantly being given inspiration.
A Sense of Community
The students are always discussing and learning about ways to give back to the community and fulfill the role of a good citizen. Many of these students often express resistance and disdain when the topic of law comes up, mostly because of their bad associations with law enforcement. The West Side Story Project heals those associations since police offers from the community meet with the teens and hold discussions, as well as take part in interactive workshops. These “role reversal – role play” workshops are based on various scenarios, in which the teens portray law enforcement officers confronting young adults who are breaking the law. These activities help the students understand the familiar situations in a different way and feel more comfortable and supportive of the law enforcement officers.
Sergeant Manuel Chavez of Santa Ana displayed such dedication to his involvement in the program that his mere presence at the teens’ rehearsals and performances caused even the most formerly resistant students to describe his attendance as heartwarming. In Los Angeles, we have our greatest asset, Sergeant Larry Martinez of LAPD, who has been volunteering for this program since 2009. The West Side Story Project is federally funded, by a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Policing. Theatrical workshops, youth summits, and other project activities are also conducted in many locations around the country.
These are just some of many reasons why Phoenix House’s involvement with the West Side Story Project is so powerful and positive. If you would like to help make this project even better by volunteering as our theater partner, please contact Cynthia Castillo at Phoenix House Academy of Los Angeles or Lauri Romero at Phoenix House Academy of Orange County. They will be happy to respond to your inquiries and get you involved!