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This May marked the 30th annual performance of Westwood Youth & Family Services’ Body Safety Theater (BST) program. Each year, Westwood Youth & Family Services (WY&FS) collaborates with Westwood Public Schools to put on Body Safety Theater for all third grade students in Westwood. BST is a sexual abuse prevention program that teaches students how to identify potentially abusive situations and what to do in the event that sexual abuse occurs. High school mentors act out three skits, each of which teaches students two “body safety” rules.
In addition to the performances, WY&FS staff also visit each third grade classroom in the weeks before and after the performance to prepare the students for what they will see and to reinforce the concepts they learned. Parents of every student receive a resource packet prior to the start of the program, informational sessions are also held before the performances so that parents can preview exactly what their children will see and hear and surveys are sent at the completion of the program to allow parents and volunteers to share feedback.
Developed in 1987 as The Body Safety Awareness Program, BST was formed with the help of high school students. Joan Courtney Murray, Westwood’s current Director of Human Resources, was a new resident of Westwood at the time and was looking to get involved in the community. Her experience as a theater major in college made her a perfect fit for the role of BST’s first Director. Murray describes the challenge of developing the BST program was “how to get the message across clearly without being scary or goofy.” Murray worked with an initial group of 10 high school mentors to write the first BST script and make the performance interactive for third grade students. As the first BST Director for a couple of years, Murray remembers feeling “Wow, we really had an impact!”
One high school student that first year was Kris McDonough, a current Martha Jones kindergarten teacher. She was a sophomore at Westwood High School at the time and was asked to help write the BST skits. She remembers “it was a tough topic to cover and at the time it felt awkward, but we knew we were covering something important.” When she returned to Westwood Public Schools as a teacher, McDonough was surprised to see that the program was still being performed and with the use of the original script she had helped to develop. Although the skits have been modified, McDonough was “amazed and proud that something I was a part of starting is still being used today in Westwood, thirty years later.”
Allison Curtain, a third grade teacher at the Martha Jones Elementary, is also a former BST mentor. Curtain reflects on her BST experience as a high school student: “I knew my passion was to work with children so BST was one of my favorite [volunteer experiences].” Now Curtain enjoys preparing her third grade classroom for the BST performances, and sharing her mentor experience with students. “I can only hope one of my third graders will be inspired to join the BST team when they are in high school!”
This year, 24 Westwood High School students volunteered as BST mentors. Liz Delfeld, a senior, says “I remember seeing the skits when I was younger and they are the same. It’s great to be a mentor now and share the important message with the kids.” Some mentors dedicate time to multiple years in the program, like Tim Kearns, a junior. Tim says “I think it’s important to the community to have a program for elementary school kids like this. I have really enjoyed doing it for the past three years, and I plan to participate again next year.”
Westwood Youth and Family Services thanked all the mentors, teachers, school partners and community members that have been involved in making BST a success over the last thirty years, and to the PTOs of the Westwood Elementary Schools for their ongoing funding of this important community program.