Story published online March 20, 2017 and in the print edition of March 23, 2017 in The Daily Herald, a suburban Chicago daily newspaper

Writer and Photographer: Eric Peterson of The Daily Herald

Though kids often rely on the experience of adults to navigate life’s challenges, the best advice often comes from others their age.

For 33 years, that knowledge has kept the ever-changing performances of the youth troupe MWAH! — Messages Which Are Hopeful — relevant and hard-hitting as it addresses such painful coming-of-age topics as bullying, suicide, racial stereotyping, substance abuse and abusive relationships.

The young performers touched on these subjects Monday at Robert Frost Junior High in Schaumburg through skits, songs and deliberately awkward moments made to look like unscripted outbursts from the audience and themselves.

After the performance, 14-year-old Donald McCormick and 13-year-old Brianne Cannataro knew why it resonated so much for them and their classmates.

McCormick said his family have long struggled with one member’s heroin addiction and other personal problems.

Cannataro said she could relate to being bullied when she was younger, and in more recent years to dealing with her parents’ divorce and father’s alcoholism and death.

They agreed the tragedy of young people taking their own lives as a result of temporary problems was the topic that probably stung them and their classmates the most.

In one example of an adult voice helping underscore the message, Jennifer Higgins of Geneseo, Illinois joined the presentation to speak of the anguish caused by the pointlessness of her son Joshua Wilson’s suicide after sixth grade.

“I’m here as a mom who lost her son to say ask for help when you need it,” she said. “It’s a sign of strength to ask for help when you need it.”

And because Robert Frost Principal Scott Ross had reported an increasing amount of hateful language among students aimed at Jews and Muslims, the MWAH! troupe invited Cantorial Leader Ilana Axel of Beth Tikvah Congregation in Hoffman Estates to speak.

She spoke of how she needs to keep bomb-threat protocols on her desk these days, and how such potential violence follows from the language students may be merely using carelessly at first.

“The only way we can fight this hate and stop all these things from happening is to get to know each other,” Axel said.

The 90-minute presentation ended with a fun and energetic dance number.

For a link to this story as it appeared in The Daily Herald print edition of March 23, 2017, please click here .