Jennifer Higgins of Geneseo, Illinois talks about the suicide of her son, Joshua, during the MWAH! troupe performance in Rock Island on November 14, 2016 which focused on such issues as suicides, self-harm, alcohol and other drug abuse, and stereotyping.  The photographer was Kevin E. Schmidt of the Quad City Times.

STORY PUBLISHED IN THE QUAD CITY TIMES ON NOVEMBER 15, 2016
BY SEAN LEARY

DAVENPORT, IOWA –

Joshua Wilson’s picture looks like most 11-year-olds’ school yearbook portraits. He’s dressed up, hair neatly styled, and he has a big, welcoming smile.

He had a wonderful sense of humor, was a great kid and a lot of fun to be with, his mother, Jennifer, said.

And on a sunny afternoon, over summer vacation, as he was getting ready to go into seventh grade, Joshua took his own life.

“There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about him,” his mother said. “I miss him every day.”

The tragedy of young people ending their lives before they’ve had the chance to truly live them was the focus of a powerful presentation that riveted hundreds of local youths at Rock Island High School Monday morning.

“Life And Death Issues” was the focus of a presentation by the performing arts group MWAH! Performing Arts Troupe, an acronym for Messages Which Are Hopeful. The program began jarringly by tackling stereotypes and segued into frank and personal discussions of bullying, divorce, drugs, addiction and suicide and how to combat and prevent them, particularly among junior high and high school students. The program was a mix of musical numbers, skits and talks from people who have been affected by suicide, addiction, bullying and other problems teens and preteens face.

“Suicide prevention awareness is a serious issue, and it’s important for the schools to be behind programs like this that confront the issues kids face,” said Inga Harty, an organizer of the event. “Kids face so many pressures today, and this program addresses them in a creative format that really connects with the kids.”

Students from Edison and Washington junior high schools packed the auditorium, and many were visibly and audibly moved by the presentation. More than a half dozen students, who declined comment, had to leave the auditorium, and there were audible gasps and sobs during portions of the program.

During one especially hard-hitting section, large, smiling, school pictures of preteens who recently committed suicide were displayed, as their parents and friends told the stories of the children and the turmoil that led to their irreparable action.

“Life is difficult and sometimes you just need a friend to talk to, sometimes you need a person you know you can go to, and if you get to that point, you need to find that person,” Jennifer Wilson said, her voice cracking, as she talked about her son. “You need to find someone you trust, because suicide is a decision that you can’t undo.”

Students who did comment on the show were affected by the performances and the subject matter.

“It’s good to have programs like this, to talk about things like this,” said D’leyah Conner, 13, an eighth-grader at Edison.

“It’s really helpful,” added Gabby Taber, 13, an eighth-grader at Edison.

One local student, Carenn Hayes, 13, an eighth-grader from Edison, was part of the show, planted in the audience at the start to yell out stereotypical commentary at an African-American presenter, before she joined her on stage, in order to ignite conversation about stereotypes and bigotry.

“It felt good to be a part of the program, because they’re really important topics that we need to talk about and that people should care about,” Hayes said. “I felt very welcomed into the group, and I was happy to be a part of it.”

Teachers welcomed the presentation and tackling the topics head on.

“It’s good for kids to have an awareness of the things going on and to know that there are people that understand,” said Brandy Junis, a science teacher at Edison. “I think it’s really helpful to also let kids know that they can go to people for help and that people do care, that they can reach out if they need to.”