NEW ULM - The basement at St. Peter's Episcopal Church is noisy at 7 o'clock on a Friday morning.
This is the place that houses the headquarters for Healthy Communities Healthy Youth, HC/HY a local non-profit organization that seeks to support young people, strengthen families and the community and promote healthy lifestyle choices.
Its director has an office off the hallway as you come in the door. To the left of the door is a large, open room that has two foosball tables and two couches with flat-screen television sets in front of them. A small kitchen is through a swinging door at the end of the room.
Members of SPOTS perform for fifth-graders at Washington Elementary School.
On Friday morning, this place is busy, as three groups of area high school students talk and work on the scenes they will perform in front of their classmates and younger schoolchildren as members of a theater troupe called SPOTS - Students Performing On Tough Situations.
In the kitchen, a group of five girls rehearses the scene called "Frenemies," which illustrates how teenagers interact.
A group in the main room rehearses "Too Much Stress," which touches on the pressures students face in school.
Most of the students in this year's troupe are from New Ulm High School.
However, Miranda Ziemer, a senior at Minnesota Valley Lutheran High School, learned about SPOTS from a couple friends. Ziemer, who drives into New Ulm every day from St. James, belongs to a Big Brother-Big Sister program in her hometown and likes the opportunities the troupe affords her to talk to her peers about issues they face.
"We're not trying to tell them 'Don't do this because it's bad,' we're trying to tell them 'Don't do this because we've been there,'" Ziemer said.
After an hour of rehearsal, youth program coordinator Sheldon Rieke marshalls the group together to check his schedule. Sitting on the table beneath his schedule dry-erase board, a couple packages of chocolate Easter rabbits are the last thing the troupe members tear into as they head out the door for the last day of rehearsal before their Easter break, thanking Rieke for the candy as they leave.
Close to one week later, a SPOTS group was in a classroom performing for the students.
Anne Simmet's fifth grade class at Washington Elementary School in New Ulm was quiet and attentive while the group of four high school girls dressed in black SPOTS T-shirts came into the room. Rieke was behind them and they sat down in a row of chairs at the front of the room.
Today's lesson deals with honesty. In the first scene, the students demonstrate examples of dishonesty and its consequences.
The second scene illustrates the difference in the outcome when the students were honest about why they didn't finish their paper or how the paint got spilled in art class.
After the scene ended, Rieke questioned the actors while they were still in character. Their characters gave explanations for their behavior.
A question and answer period followed.
A scene about bullying closed the lessons. The troupe demonstrated instances of bullying and then explained their actions in character before Rieke asked the fifth-graders about their own experiences. The discussion segued into questions about high school before Simmet dismissed her class.
Simmet said she asked SPOTS to come to her class and perform the scenes because she wanted to reinforce lessons she taught her class. She knew her students would listen more closely because the people teaching the lesson were students themselves.
"It's a way of connecting with kids, kids talking to kids because they don't just do a scene. They stay in character afterwards to give it more depth," said Rieke. "Kids hearing it from other kids make it more than an adult can say. Let's say we're at the high school and talking about drinking. When the kids talk about losing friends and not wanting to drink, that's a really heartfelt issue."
Seventy-five percent of New Ulm area children in grades K-12 have seen a SPOTS scene, Rieke estimates.
"I've been in the grocery store and kids are going 'Psst, it's the SPOTS man!'," Rieke said.
Rieke said SPOTS will expand with HC/HY and is working to set up SPOTS troupes in Sleepy Eye and Springfield.
"I think it shows the ongoing need for SPOTS," said Rieke. "Not only are kids performing for each other, but they're willing to do what it takes. It's not about doing theater for some. They just want to help people and this is a way of helping."
The ideas that form the basis for SPOTS scenes come from the students.
Actors from a Minneapolis-based theater company called Cornerstone Theater help the students write their own material at a workshop each August. Cornerstone Theater held the workshop HC/HY leaders attended in 1998 and also helped develop SPOTS.
SPOTS has performed in Sleepy Eye and at St. Olaf College. It also performed for teachers in Maple River. It traveled to Indianapolis to perform for a conference there in 2005.
Every April, applications get sent to school counselors for students entering grades 9-12. Rieke said SPOTS shares some of its talent with high school theater programs.
For nearly a decade, SPOTS has seen many students come through its roster.
HC/HY recently held a reunion and reception for SPOTS alumni at its office in St. Peter's to celebrate its 10th anniversary. The event was a part of a larger celebration of HC/HY's 30 years.
SPOTS began in 1999 as a pilot program started by HC/HY staff as the result of a leadership conference where a similar group performed.
SPOTS became a full-time HC/HY program the following year. It has performed for about 1,800 students each year since then.
"I count it as one of the significant things that I've been able to be a part of in my life," said Susan Ward, who was the director of Healthy Communities Healthy Youth from 1998 until 2006. "It's reached a lot of people and that's really cool."