Project Trust helps students help others

TRUST ME — Students from Fairmont and Blue Earth High School received training for Project Trust on Wednesday afternoon in Fairmont. The students worked together on different team building activities and learned a skit they will perform in the near future.

FAIRMONT — Students from Fairmont and Blue Earth high schools received special training Wednesday from Illusion Theater, a theater company based in Minneapolis.

Illusion Theater has been bringing its Project Trust program to Fairmont every other year for several decades.

Illusion Theater is professional theater that puts on regular shows. Its peer education program was established in 1981. Illusion Theater’s director of education, Karen Gundlach, explained Project Trust.

“It’s a peer education program,” she said. “Illusion Theater has developed a script on various issues with youth. Instead of the professional company coming and performing, we train high school students to perform the show and stay in the community as a resource. They license our script and do a training with our theater, and then they can perform the show as many times as they want within that year.”

Fairmont has been a site since 1984 and Blue Earth since 1992. Soon after Blue Earth became a site, the two schools started training together. Ten students from each school studied Wednesday at St. John’s United Church of Christ in Fairmont.

At Trust sites, high school students perform Illusion’s educational plays for the elementary, middle and high schools in their communities.

“The ‘touch show’ is our oldest educational show,” Gundlach said. “It started in 1987 and is about the prevention of child sexual abuse, and it’s about learning the difference between good and safe touch and unsafe and bad touch.”

She said the script has changed over the years with the immersion of the internet and events that have happened. They update scripts as needed, and all the scripts are based on true stories and experiences.

During the all-day training sessions, students first undertake some team-building activities, then receive sexual abuse training before they learn the skits.

Michelle Thompson, a social worker at Fairmont High School noted, “Students have to go through an interview process and we choose the best of the best.”

Grace Higgins, a senior at Fairmont, said she had to fill out an application and then go through an interview to join the program.

“I think there’s a really important message, especially in today’s culture,” Higgins said. “I’ve done acting things before so this is just another thing that looked like it was fun to do.”

Tyson Geerdes, a junior at Fairmont, talked about why he wanted to join.

“I remember back to my elementary school days seeing the play and I remember all the great upperclassmen, and it was really cool to see them there, showing that they cared about the lives of the younger kids,” he said. “A lot of them were the stars of the sports teams or the lead in the school plays. I looked up to them and I want to be a positive influence to the younger students of today.”

In February, Project Trust students in Fairmont will visit the elementary school to perform skits for the younger students. Students will see a skit twice in their elementary years. They typically see it once in third grade and again in fifth grade.

“A student that sees it in third grade will react differently or pick up on things differently than they will in fifth grade because of maturity or their experiences,” Gundlach said. “We’re hoping that they see it before anything happens so they know how to prevent it or they tell someone right away when they feel safe or unsafe.”

“My favorite thing about the play is that it empowers these young children to say no. It gives them the message that they’re in charge and that’s what I love about it,” said Fairmont High School nurse Nancy Backer.

Gundlach said it is more powerful to have the older kids come to teach the elementary kids rather than having the students listen to a lecture from a teacher or having an outside adult come in and lecture them.

“It makes the younger students think, ‘If they can talk about it and talk about their bodies in a positive way, then I can do it too,'” Gundlach said.

Gundlach shared that one in three girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before the age of 18. She said that through their work with the University of Minnesota, they have discovered that 85 percent of women experience sexual harassment after the age of 18 and more than 70 percent of the offenders are known by the victim.

“It’s someone who has earned their trust,” Gundlach explained.

The students will be trained how to handle disclosure and refer it to the professionals present at every skit performance.

“It is important to continue this program to enable us to educate as many students as we can and empower them with skills so that they will never ever be a victim of sexual abuse,” Thompson said.