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Musings & Observations / Barry Halpin

Published 4:31 pm, Friday, December 27, 2013
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Happiness lies not in the possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt

In his opinion piece, "A Formula for Happiness," in The New York Times Sunday Review Dec. 15, Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, a public policy think tank in Washington, D.C., wrote, "Along the way, I learned that rewarding work is unbelievably important. That's what research suggests as well. Work can bring happiness by marrying our passion to our skills, empowering us to create value in our lives and in the lives of others."

Over the last 25 years I've gone into high school and middle school classrooms throughout Fairfield County to do improvisational theater classes and workshops, as part of the prevention programs I run for Liberation Programs Inc. I am very passionate about my work; tapping into what I consider one of our great natural resources: The energy, enthusiasm and natural creativity of young people.

I believe that creativity can be encouraged, fostered and strengthened and that the improv classes and workshops help students get in touch with their creative muse, illustrate their talents, feel comfortable being spontaneous and provide an opportunity for them to better express what they are thinking and feeling. Improv is a personal and exciting way for the students to express themselves; it teaches specific life skills, while encouraging freedom of the imagination.

Through theater games and exercises, the goal is to teach personal, social and communication skills that will hopefully help them handle the pressures, stresses and challenges they face. Students learn the value of flexibility, concentration, observation, communication and teamwork.

Improvisation is about honest discovery, observation, reaction and being in the moment. It teaches you to be less rigid, free yourself up and be more spontaneous; it gives you the opportunity to let go, and helps strengthen the imagination.

I wholeheartedly agree with Elizabeth Swados, playwright, director and teacher, that theater is a healing art. It's laughing and creating laughter; an opportunity to play without embarrassment, what we used to do as kids.

During a recent visit to Cloonan Middle School in Stamford, I had a brilliant time doing improv with Dr. Moulketis' eighth-graders. The highlight was when the pop group Marcos and the Potatoes created a song -- with three girl back-up singers and cool dance moves -- about modern love. The class was in hysterics.

There's nothing better than seeing kids tap into their creative potential and find their voice. The energy and magic is always in the here and now. There are many opportunities to affect lives; the more opportunities we give kids, the more kids we'll be able to reach.

Another opportunity I've been able to provide students at several local high schools is to be part of a peer-to-peer support group. From 2008 to 2011, I co-facilitated the Leadership Group, a peer-to-peer support group, at Central High School in Bridgeport and witnessed countless success stories, testament to the power of peers helping peers. If it could work at one high school, I figured it could work at others.

Steve Karjanis, social worker, and Dave Gordon, school drug counselor, started the group in 2005 with two students; by 2010, there were more than 400 students attending one of the 20 groups offered each week.

The Leadership Group's mantra was: "Harnessing the power of peer influence to effect positive change." The students looked forward to the group; it was a chance to express themselves in a place where no one was going to judge them.

In the groups I now co-facilitate with a social worker, the students have said that talking and letting things out is a great help and just knowing that someone actually cares is a big help, too. The power of the group to effect change in their lives is clearly evident, as is the good feeling they get from helping one another.

They feel comfortable getting things out in the group; it's a safe haven. They're with people who care and understand what they are going through. You can be open; people listen to you and give you encouragement. Getting encouragement from kids their own age is vital. The challenge is to help them understand the impact of their decisions on their lives and their futures.

On a daily basis I am fortunate to have the opportunity to meet and work with so many bright and talented young people, in middle schools and high schools, throughout Fairfield County.

After the Royal Wedding on April 29, 2011, Elton John said, "It was needed positivity, in a world that doesn't really have much."

My work with young people -- improv workshops, peer-to-peer support groups, prevention presentations, trips to our rehabs -- is extremely rewarding and always gives me a needed hit of positivity.

Barry Halpin can be reached at barryhalpin@aol.com.