The Courageous Kids Teen Theater Troupe

Up until fall 2016, Joe Zingo of Actors Cabaret of Eugene, and theater coaches Nate Beard and Dario LaPoma consulted with teens to create the messages they want to give about their own personal grief journeys. The resulting powerful performances in the community and at schools created a much broader base of understanding and compassion for any grieving child. Last year the troupe held performances at Wellsprings School, Roosevelt Middle School (2 performances), and Actor's Cabaret of Eugene.

Now, Courageous Kids has begun looking for theater coaches to form the latest 2016/2017 Theater Troupe. If you or someone you know might be interested in coaching the CK Theater Troupe in the future, please let us know.

Typically, a troupe starts the year by going on a fall, weekend retreat to create the content and form of their play. They work and play hard, show tremendous courage, and feel empowered to use what they have learned through their own pain to help other youth.

Planning a Scene, Fall 2012 Retreat Gathering for a Meal, Fall 2012 Retreat

 

Here's a review from one of the audience members after a performance in spring 2012:

The Courageous Kids Theater Troupe has, "created a revitalized and inspiring performance. This cutting edge work is a tool for dialogue. The troupe sets the much needed example of how speaking your truth and being willing to be witnessed telling stories of discomfort and pain is the pathway to creating community and authentic connection. I hope the troupe's performance will be seen by many people, particularly grieving teens. This show articulates what many do not have the words for."  --Lola Broomberg


The Birth of the Theater Troupe

What one local organization is doing to help young people cope with loss

By Jordan Crucchiola, Published May 2010

“We just give a safe space for these families to come – kids, their parents, teens – to be able to come, to talk and share, and give and receive peer support. That’s really important.” ~ Cheryl Coughran, former Program Director of Courageous Kids

"For three years it just consumed me. My vision was to be able to go around the country or internationally and build these troupes everywhere because I couldn’t see a barrier to it." ~ Lola Broomberg, a former volunteer for CK and director of the theater troupe

Claire LaPoma

It’s the same story over and over again. The audience may change from day to day, but the characters and the ending never do. It was November of 1999 and Claire LaPoma’s dad was about to die. Cancer had laid claim to his body. As she opens up and bears her soul to the crowd in front of her over and over again, Claire knows the pain of that day will never go away. But the fear that may hold her back is exactly what drives her forward.

When people think of grieving the loss of a loved one, a Claire LaPoma is not the first image that leaps to mind. She isn’t depressed. She doesn’t appear forlorn. Her clothing is not excessively dreary. A picture of well-adjusted optimism, Claire is beautiful and vibrant – what sunshine in a bottle would look like. She is the one your parents always liked so much more than your other friends. With dark eyes that sparkle like pools of melted chocolate and a purple flower tucked in her wavy brown hair (as always), Claire exudes the kind of a brilliant optimism reserved for those with only the deepest appreciation for life – an appreciation she has earned. Since losing her dad at age 14, Claire has committed herself to helping others deal with grief by sharing her story through the Courageous Kids theater troupe in her hometown of Eugene, Oregon.

Upon losing her father, Claire says she felt all the usual emotions associated with someone in her position: numbness, shock, anger. Two of these, shock and anger, can be found within the “Seven Stages of Grief” that people are said to experience throughout the healing process, along with denial, bargaining, guilt, depression and finally acceptance/hope. Claire has had to reconcile each of these emotions since losing her father, but says the idea of stages makes the “process” too rigid. “My dad died a week ago, I’m in shock. Next week, I’m going to be in denial. Next month – you know... no! In fact, seven years down the road I’m still sometimes dealing.”

To help her “deal” more effectively with her dad’s death, Claire started attending grief support meetings at the Courageous Kids program at Sacred Heart Medical Center in early 2000. The peer-to-peer counseling format proved ideal for someone with her extroverted personality. “Some kids aren’t quite ready to go to the Courageous Kids group every week and talk about their grief,” she says. “In fact there are kids that just go there and they shut down. And then there are kids like me that are always right there sharing, and I shared tears and stories and it really benefited me.”

For Claire, being among other grievers was more beneficial than going to a one-on-one therapist. At CK she could make friends, express herself through art therapy and surround herself with people who understood what she was going through. After one year of consistently attending weekly group meetings, Claire graduated the program at 16, which basically means she felt ready to stop going. She wasn’t “over” her father’s death, but she had reached peace with it. During her junior year at South Eugene High School, Claire decided to take a break from CK, but returned her senior year to volunteer as a peer counselor. What began as a vehicle to get community service hours for National Honor Society became a life-changing endeavor: Claire would become an inaugural member of the newly formed Courageous Kids theater troupe.

*~~~~*

Sponsored by Hospice of Sacred Heart Medical Center, Courageous Kids is a grief support program for children and teenagers who have recently experienced a death in their family, usually immediate. Two separate programs are offered for kids ages six to 18 – elementary, middle and high schoolers – each with the goal of creating a safe environment where young grievers can share their experiences and “normalize” the intense feelings that surround losing a family member. Weekly support meetings, such as the ones attended by LaPoma, are available for kids and parents, whereas peer counseling helps grievers create a dialogue about their experiences.

“We just give a safe space for these families to come – kids, their parents, teens – to be able to come, to talk and share, and give and receive peer support. That’s really important,” says Cheryl Coughran, former Program Director of Courageous Kids. “It’s just as important to be able to support someone else as it is to get the support that you need, because that’s part of your healing process. That’s what happens in the theater troupe.” Coughran is the epitome of a mother figure. Her face is warm and her eyes are kind. Her office at the Hospice Center is stacked with children’s artwork, figurines and toys – they literally fill shelves upon shelves throughout the room, which she shares with CK’s Art Director Jackie Franzen.

As Cheryl speaks, her voice is filled with the empathy of someone who has dealt with the deepest of human pain, but she does not dance around the issue of death – the “D” word, as she calls it. Cheryl has learned that to truly help young people in times of traumatic loss, you must be honest with them; you must be willing to broach taboo subjects. “We talk very frankly about that fact that the death of somebody really important in your life changes it forever,” she says. “You’re never going to be the same again and we talk about that. What they find after 10 weeks is that it won’t be the same again, they know that, but it can be better again. It can be good again.”

Already a hospice volunteer at Sacred Heart, Cheryl first got involved with Courageous Kids in 1996. During her time working in hospice, she sat bedside with patients and provided bereavement support for families whose loved ones had just passed. It was Cheryl’s job to make sure those families had someone. If they needed to leave the hospital to grocery shop or run errands or just get away for a while, Cheryl stayed with patients so they weren’t alone. But she wanted to work more closely with children, so when a volunteer spot opened up at the Courageous Kids summer camp Cheryl leaped at the opportunity.

More so than adults, Cheryl says the positivity and receptiveness of children makes them easier to work with than adults who are grieving. At CK’s camp, she really found her niche. “It was just an amazing experience for me,” says Cheryl, “We might be talking about their loved one and they might be in tears or very sad, and five minutes later they were in a swimsuit and a towel just like a normal kid going down to go swimming . . . It just fit perfectly.” At the four-day retreat overlooking Fall Creek Reservoir near Eugene, campers are provided a sort of oasis from their day-to-day handling of grief. There are outdoor activities, game and music rooms, art therapy sessions where kids can creatively express their feelings, and drama games. It was out of these drama games and theater exercises that the performance troupe was conceived in 2002 – sort of by accident.

“There are some emotions that you can’t as easily get to through speech,” says Lola Broomberg, a former volunteer for CK and director of the theater troupe, “I was at Courageous Kids camp and I was just musing to Cheryl, ‘It would be so amazing if these people could actually take what we just did and turn it into a performance. That would be amazing,’ and it was like ‘Oh!’.”

Currently a counselor in Eugene, Broomberg came to the United States from Zimbabwe as a young girl to attend college. She has a Master’s degree in telecommunications as well as a teacher’s diploma in speech and drama. In 1999 – the same year Claire’s father died – Lola was invited to volunteer for CK because of her background in theater. She would lead kids in exercises that allowed them to express their grief in ways alternative to just talking.

It was out of an “initially not very healthy” obsession with death that Lola first found interest in working with Courageous Kids. If ever she got sick, Lola would immediately assume she was dying, a reaction she says might have been caused by being so far from her home and family in Africa. Working with Courageous Kids was a way for her to “exercise” those extreme emotions by helping people who were dealing with loss “right now”. Her previous theatrical experience with children included activities such as after school programs, but nothing as intense as the CK performance troupe. “The thing that Courageous Kids troupe had in common in anything I had done before was putting people in a position to risk saying what they needed to say, and having it be that there are no wrong answers, and they support each other, and every version is appropriate.”

Lola says it is the purpose of the troupe to help grievers, both performers and audience members, find their “truth” by creating a conversation about grief and all the issues that accompany it. But to be a griever does not necessarily mean to have lost a loved one, a detail that Lola is quick to point out. A griever could be anyone feeling alienated for being overweight or shy or because their parents are getting divorced. The point of the theater troupe is to raise awareness about people coping with these problems so they don’t have to be dealt with in secret anymore. In the case of Courageous Kids, the performers are addressing death and loss, “I think that this work is an opportunity for creating community dialogue . . . There’s eight people who all experienced profound grief whose storytelling informed each other’s exploration of how they each processed it.”

Once Cheryl and Lola shared their epiphany about the theater troupe, the creative and organizational process got under way. To assemble an adequate group of performers, the two women looked among Courageous Kids alumni for participants, kids who had really demonstrated strong growth and progress and who would be good role models for those new to the grief process. “They’re the experts on grief, not me. They are,” says Cheryl, sounding almost relieved with the admission, “People should know that this can happen, that we can heal from this devastating loss.”

Claire, who Cheryl says always thrived when expressing herself creatively through dance or performing, was one of those tapped to be in the pioneering first group. She recalls her first interaction with the troupe as an emotional time: “We had this preliminary meeting and we sat down together and some of these kids I haven’t seen for three years, since I did the group with them, and we all just started crying,” says Claire, “We were like: ‘Wow, what can we say to the community at-large?’.”

“The kids we had that year were willing to lead,” says Lola of the first theater troupe, “If it wasn’t all of them that were willing to lead, the ones that were willing to lead were so strong that they kind of took the others with them.” Once the members of group had all been chosen, it came time to devise an organized performance. Fortunately that year, there was enough funding for Lola to take the kids on a weekend retreat – a chance to really bond with one another and formulate ideas. It was also a way for some kids to really come out of their shells, “You don’t have to have theatrical skills. Speaking your truth is powerful enough.”

One boy in particular Lola recalls with a kind of accomplished excitement. Although initially against participating in the show, Lola convinced the young man to come on the retreat anyway, just so he could do technical work. But after taking part in the drama games and getting more comfortable with other troupe members, he gave in and agreed join. He stayed with the group and performed for several more years. Lola says she recently ran into the young man around town when he told her that the troupe changed his life, enabling him to connect with people again and alleviating his fear of speaking out.

After two days on retreat, Lola and her troupe emerged with a 35-minute performance they would take to middle and high schools throughout Oregon. Sketches involved cast members telling their own stories as well as symbolic pieces used to demonstrate the range of emotions and situations people can experience when grieving a loved one. Claire and her fellow performers wanted to address “every aspect that we thought was most important for a community of non-grievers,” such as readjusting at school, confronting the reality of loss and overcoming the fear of speaking about death to others. “We felt that it was really important because everybody grieves, everyone,” says Claire; “You’re going to grieve if you move away from home, if your pet dies, if your parents get divorced. We are all grievers.”

After two months of practicing, the troupe was finally ready to take their show on the road in the spring of 2003. The time commitment was big – one or two shows a week every week – but Claire insists that it never felt like an obligation because it was something that she loved, because it was helping people. There was one piece in particular Claire would perform every time called “Letter to A Loved One,” in which she would recite a hypothetical letter to her father. Though the entire performance was well rehearsed, nothing was ever scripted. Each time she stepped before an audience, Claire would improvise what she would say to her dad given the chance. Her eyes urge you to believe her when she says it is always “so real.”

The pieces, Cheryl says, never lose their impact, “I still get teary from time to time watching these kids tell their stories, but it’s a happy kind of teary,” says Cheryl, her voice filled with pride, “I just know how far they’ve come, and so for me I’m just filled with joy that they have healed so beautifully and are such great roll models.” After performances at schools, both Cheryl and Claire recall both students and staff members approaching them after shows, expressing gratitude and sometimes crying for their own experiences with grief and loss. To complement the theater troupe, Courageous Kids also hosts support groups in schools throughout the Eugene area. Since their first performance, over 70 have been hosted at various locations.

After spending her senior year intensely involved with the CK troupe, Claire left for a year to study abroad in Ecuador. It was a much-needed break from resurrecting her past week after week and having to emotionally “get there” each time she recounted her dad’s death. “My story was becoming less of mine and more of everyone else’s.” This proved to be a common denominator among other troupe performers and was something Lola Broomberg says could not have been anticipated prior to forming the troupe. None of the participants had ever been involved with anything like the theater group before, so in its first year it was as much a learning experience for the kids as it was for the adults involved. Lola says that kids in the troupe have the potential to give away too much “preciousness” when telling their stories so frequently and to so many people. She also says, however, that kids know when enough is enough: “It really needs to be honest, and they know it right away when they get to that place,” says Lola, “It’s just a thing to be vigilant around as a facilitator and a performer: What is not to be spoken? What is too sacred to be shared?”

*~~~~*

Upon returning from Ecuador, Claire felt ready to return to the Courageous Kids troupe, but along with acting she would also take the helm as director, a position she has held for the past two years. The group still travels around with their show, but not as frequently. Most of the performers have been doing shows for years, and many are getting too old or too burnt out to keep telling their tales. Claire even had to admit recently that she must either stick to strictly to directing or leave the troupe. She has reached her point, and knows it’s time to stop.

Lola continues directing the theater troupe. Her enthusiasm for the endeavor seems not to have waned since parting ways with CK. “The whole thing is extraordinary; I am so excited about it!” says Lola. “For three years it just consumed me. My vision is to be able to go around the country or internationally and build these troupes everywhere because I can’t see a barrier to it.” Though the project has not gotten as far as Lola initially envisioned, she says troupe alumni have started similar programs in San Diego, Boston and Portland.

Claire is a good place right now, better than she’s been in a long time. She wishes she dreamt of her father more, but told her mom recently that she wouldn’t change a thing about her life up to this point, telling her: “Dad has taught me more in these seven years since he died than he ever did when he was alive.” After a brief moment of contemplation, Claire realized that was probably overstating it a little bit, but still maintains that out of loss comes growth. Although Claire’s story may never change, though her father will still be lost to cancer, the end of her story is completely up to her, and Claire chooses to see life instead of just death, “Grief is not the end of life. Even from death and sadness and grieving comes so much life.”

Principles of Courageous Kids:

• Grief is a normal response to the death of a loved one.

• Children grieve as intensely as do adults, but in different ways.

• It is essential for the healthy development of a child to grieve a significant loss.

• Healing from a painful loss is possible with support and acceptance.

• Children need support that is appropriate to their developmental stage.

The Hospice of Sacred Heart Medical Center in which the office of Courageous Kids is found.

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