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Educational Theatre Celebrates Milestone

Kaiser Permanente’s award-winning educational program turns 30.

Thirty years ago the price of gas was $1.24 a gallon and “Careless Whisper” by WHAM! was a top hit on the radio. While much has changed, at Kaiser Permanente some things remain timeless, including the ability of its Kaiser Permanente Educational Theatre (KPET) to inspire the lives of young people.

Celebrating its 30th year in Northern California, KPET is still helping school students and staff, parents, and communities learn to make informed, healthy choices when faced with issues ranging from nutrition to bullying to depression. Over time the program has changed from being a single play for elementary school children to becoming a series of three award-winning theatrical productions for grades K-8 and experiential learning workshops for students in grades 9-12.

Keeping Up with the Times

Although KPET performances and workshops have stayed focused on health topics such as healthy eating, physical activity, and healthy relationships, the issues associated with those topics have evolved.  One example is the “Nightmare on Puberty Street” show that centers on concerns that emerge in early adolescence.

“The physical changes and emotional insecurities associated with puberty haven’t changed that much,” said Aviance A. Rhome-Boroff, PsyD, psychological assistant in Richmond’s Department of Psychiatry and a former KPET performer educator. “But puberty didn’t used to so prominently involve issues such as cutting or gender identity.”

Michael Armstrong, health education manager at the Kaiser Permanente Walnut Creek Medical Center and also a KPET alumni, said that over the years, some of the shows — like “Nightmare” — have been controversial.

“Through their dedicated effort, KPET was able to show school administrators and parents that the content is health-related and a valuable resource for schools during tough economic times. When we’ve aligned KPET with school curricula to meet state requirements, it’s helped the schools say, ‘Yes, we provided this education,’ without having to spend resources reinventing the wheel.”

In response to increasing behavioral health needs, KPET is now creating a series of behavioral health programs to help students learn about resiliency, stress reduction, and mindfulness.

Regina Dwerlkotte, KPET Director in the Northern California Region, said that along with the topics, production details such as music, slang, and clothing change almost monthly.

“The key is in the performer educators being seen by kids as people who look and sound like them, presenting the message in a way that speaks to them.”

Now in her 27th year with KPET, Dwerlkotte added that current pop culture references are also important, citing the addition of Pokemon Go into one of the shows’ scenes.

Cyber Realities

KPET is also exploring changes in how its 37 staff members can expand the group’s reach beyond the 320,000 people it currently touches annually.  Earlier this year KPET teamed up with Youth Radio to host its first Twitter chat. KPET is also looking into digital communications to expand its reach through videos available on its website.

“The youth we see now have always had the internet and social media in their lives,” said Dwerlkotte. “There is so much more information to sort through, and they can sometimes be naïve and have basic questions and insecurities about sexuality, fitting in, and feeling understood by adults.”

Rhome-Boroff sees social media as being essential in reaching youth with preventive medicine, adding that the young people she works with are increasingly stepping up to be leaders in their own communities.

“Young people want to be part of educating other young people, especially on topics like conflict resolution and preventing bullying related to issues such as race, sexual orientation, and gender identity, and they’ve experienced an improvement in mental health when they give back to their community.”

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