By Bettina Borders and Estella Rebeiro
One day several years ago, Katherine Knowles, the director of the Zeiterion, approached the Juvenile Court to offer the possibility for court-involved youth to attend Zeiterion performances. Ms. Knowles envisioned the Z as a valuable community resource and wanted to extend it’s reach to include everyone. In her mind, this also meant the kids most folks want to forget.
There are many words used to describe these kids, trouble makers, delinquents, “druggies,” problem kids, misguided, etc. Ms. Knowles thought that perhaps some of them could find something at the Z to facilitate “turning them around.” It sounded good to the court. Why not try it. By and large these were kids with little opportunity to attend the Z on their own resources. Thus through the vision of Ms. Knowles and the generosity of her board, an ostensibly unlikely partnership began. Under the supervision of probation, young people from our court, and often their families, began to attend the varied theatrical performances offered by the Z.
There were several permutations to this partnership, which is part of two alternative sentencing initiatives supervised by probation and the court. At one point Ms. Knowles identified an anonymous donor who wanted to have the kids attend the theater in style. A limousine appeared at the courthouse, picked the kids up and drove them around various scenic areas of the city before dropping them, and their parents, at the Z. Later they were picked up and returned to the courthouse.
At another time, the youth participating in an alternative sentencing program, Changing Lives Through Literature, read “To Kill a Mockingbird” and later attended the play, courtesy of the Z. There have been plays, musicals, storytelling, dance, theater and magic performances these youth have had the opportunity to see. But the question remains: What has it meant?
For most of these youth and their families, this is an extraordinary experience. First, they are having a wonderful experience together, one that most of us take for granted. The probation officers who accompany these youth have watched while the demeanor of these kids transforms as the evening unfolds. They are indistinguishable from the rest of the audience; polite, engaged, attentive, well behaved, well dressed, inquisitive, mesmerized by the magical extravaganzas they are watching. They are out of their “comfort zone” and yet “belong” in this new environment. It is wonderful to hear about as the probation officers report back to the court.
But the transformation does not end there. The youth are asked to write about their experiences or discuss them in groups. Each youth is excited, energized and articulate when dissecting the play or gushing over the virtuosity of dancers or musicians. Many “thank yous” by letter and by mouth are sent by the youths. Another lesson learned. These are experiences we want for all of the youth in our community and Ms. Knowles and the Board of the Z must be commended for making them accessible to those teens least likely to find their way to the beautiful Z.
Art, we know, can transform people, all people. Ms. Knowles and her board have set a high standard for accessibility to art. One that can be replicated in many other areas of our community, particularly for youth. Our youth have much to learn from its leaders and the places frequented by them. Our court certainly appreciates the efforts made by the Z to include these youth. As Ms. Knowles says at the beginning of a performance: “Let the magic begin.” Perhaps she is on to something.
Honorable Bettina Borders is first justice of Bristol County Juvenile Court in New Bedford. Estella Rebeiro is senior probation officer. This op-ed was originally posted in the South Coast Today.