MWAH! troupe member Luke Kaminski speaks about the cyberbullying-related suicide of 11-year-old Tysen Benz (photo shown) during a troupe presentation at Walcott Intermediate School in Walcott, Iowa on May 8, 2017. (photos by Stephanie Willcox)

Story by Deirdre Cox Baker as published in the Quad City Times on May 9, 2017

The stories started with teens from Moline, Rockford, and Carol Stream speaking about racial and religious stereotyping and ended more than an hour later with an energized hip hop dance mix.

In between, the 90-minute presentation at Walcott Intermediate School on May 8, 2017 by the MWAH! Performing Arts Troupe touched on true-life issues such a teen suicide, divorce, and abusive relationships.

The quiet rural school setting on a gorgeous spring day contrasted with the powerful messages by MWAH!, which stands for Messages Which Are Hopeful!

The Moline teen-age troupe member, Omar Babu, talked about an incident in which he and his friends were playing basketball and a carload of other teens drove by, gesturing obscenely and yelling, “Go back to Syria.’

“Never judge a person by his or her racial or ethnic background,” Omar told the Walcott students.

Troupe member Luke Kaminski, an eighth grader from Marseilles, Illinois, told about Tysen Benz, age 11, from Marquette, Michigan, who reportedly saw a text message stating that his 13-year-old girlfriend had committed suicide.  Just 40 minutes later Tysen’s mom found his lifeless body in the closet of his room.  He had texted that he was going to kill himself, but no-one tried to intervene.  After several weeks on life support, Tysen died in early April.  The text was a prank – his girlfriend had not died.  Another teen now faces criminal charges.

During the all-school assembly a Walcott school choir, together with MWAH! troupe musicians, presented the song ‘Nothing More’ in honor of the Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa.  The song was written by The Alternate Routes Band of Connecticut in memory of one of the first graders who died in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting five years ago.

With the Matthew West song ‘Two Houses’ and some personal stories, the MWAH! troupe tackled the topic of divorce and its effect on children and later the issues of parental child abuse leading to abusive teen relationships.

Lindsay Kent, a MWAH! vocalist from Shorewood, Illinois, told Walcott students about the struggles she faced in junior high school and how they led to her starting to cut herself and stop eating as ways to relieve the emotional pain.  “I promise you, life is worth it, and it will get better,” she said.

In a more light-hearted moment of the show, Landon Ballard of Rockford, Illinois learned from Kylie Leming, a Walcott eighth grader, that she loved robotics and basketball, a sport which tied in with Landon’s interests.  Further discussion between Landon and Kylie led to a song ‘We Belong Together’ with Landon joined by troupe vocalists James Agena and Justin Smusz as they competed for Kylie’s attention.

Matt Ries, another Walcott eighth grader, participated in an improvisational skit in which he was confronted by a bully, and he wasted no time in successfully handling the situation.

As part of a wrap-up of the presentation, Lisa Tanner, a Walcott school counselor, reviewed local school policies on bullying and why it’s important to be able to talk with trusted adults about any concerns students might have.  She added, “the most important thing is to be kind and caring to one another.”

Matt Ries said his favorite part of the program was the skit he was in.  “I got to be sassy, and that’s what I’m like anyway.”

Kylie Leming said she appreciated the true stories about kids like 11-year-old Tysen Benz, the suicide victim.  The story about Tysen’s death, she said, was for her the most heart-felt part of the presentation.