The MWAH! appearance on May 8, 2017 at Walcott Intermediate School elicited a range of emotions – from sadness to joy.

(photos by Stephanie Willcox)

Story by Phil Roberts published in the North Scott Press on May 10, 2017

True stories regarding topics like suicide and racial and religious stereotyping were the focus of the MWAH! Performing Arts Troupe on Monday (May 8) at Walcott Intermediate School. MWAH! (mwah.net) is an acronym for Messages Which Are Hopeful, said its founder and director, Ray Moffitt.

The 90-minute presentation in the school gym was followed by a discussion in the school library focusing on the issues that had just been presented.

Racial and religious stereotyping were highlighted by a Moline High School sophomore, Omar Babu, who is a member of both the Islamic Center of the Quad Cities and the MWAH! troupe.

Other issues included abusive parent-child relationships, abusive boyfriend-girlfriend relationships and parental divorce and its affect on younger family members.

“The essence of the teenage MWAH! ensemble is real life stories, combined with contemporary music, lots of audience interaction and a range of emotions,” said Moffitt. “A common thread is choices and the importance of making the right ones.”

One of MWAH!’s members is Jade Parr, a freshman at Geneseo High School who has been with the troupe since last summer.

“They came to my school two times, and I was inspired by what MWAH! did,” she said. She went to Naperville, Ill., last June to audition to become part of the group, “talking about my depression and anxiety and how my grandpa had committed suicide and how my parents were going through a divorce, and I almost killed myself.”

Jade said she feels good about helping other young people who are experiencing some of the same issues she did.

“When I go out in front of high school students and middle school students, it’s easier for them to connect with students who are talking to them about what we’re going through, and we’re the same age, so they’re going to be paying more attention to kids than adults.”

She said performing with the troupe is fun, “but I’m also going out there to help someone and change someone’s life and making sure that what people in our group are going through they don’t have to go through because they’re not alone, and they always have someone to talk to.”

A Walcott Intermediate School choral ensemble joined the MWAH! troupe in a song written in memory of the one of the first-graders who died in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting five and a half years ago. There was also recognition of six Walcott students and staff members as heroes and an energized dance finale involving Walcott students who had rehearsed with the troupe earlier.

Coordinating the troupe’s visit to Walcott Intermediate was Lori Stephens, a TAG (talented and gifted) teacher.

Moffitt, of Elmhurst, Ill., has Quad Cities area roots.

“I grew up on a farm between Taylor Ridge and Reynolds,” he said.

He graduated from Reynolds High School, now called Rockridge. “The high school years, I think, really were the best years of my life. The most meaningful and gratifying.”

As a youngster, he didn’t know what hes wanted to do with his life. “I had no idea,” Moffitt said. “I figured farming was what I was meant to do. But life has lots of twists and turns.”

His high school vocational-agriculture teacher took him to visit the University of Illinois campus in Champaign-Urbana, and he enrolled there in the College of Agriculture. He minored in journalism. Later he earned a master’s degree in social work.

“I had never heard of social work when I was in high school,” Moffitt said. “I didn’t hear about that until after I got my bachelor’s degree.”

After college Moffitt held “several social work-related jobs over the years and did a lot of work with young people in residential care as well as group homes and family service organizations.

“And I was asked by a University of Illinois-Chicago social work professor to help develop a police-social work model in west suburban Maywood, so I did that. I tried a number of different special programs in Maywood, a high-risk community with a lot of gang activities and other problems.”

One of the projects he tried was the creation of Explosonic Rockers Street Jazz Theatrical Troupe, a break dance group made up of “young teenagers who discarded their gang ties and became part of something positive.”

Moffitt said that group evolved into other forms of performing arts – dance, singing, tapping, instrumental music, rap, drama “and lots of true story testimonials” – and morphed into MWAH! in about 1993.

Members of MWAH! are from all over Illinois. In addition to Moline and Geneseo, they are from Rockford, the Marseilles-Ottawa area of north-central Illinois and the western Chicago suburbs of Naperville, Shorewood and Bloomingdale.

Moffitt said performers join in a variety of ways. Sometimes they hear about the group and ask to audition. “Or maybe we happen to see somebody somewhere in a talent show. Or maybe one of our troupe members knows of somebody they think might be a good fit for our troupe.”