Kathleen Flynn-Bisson of West Babylon has come up with a dramatic way to put health education on stage, thanks to her role as the founder and director of the company she started more than 10 years ago, Kathleen Flynn-Bisson Prevention Through the Arts (KFBPTA).
A master certified health education specialist, Kathleen launched her newest endeavor, Stories of Substance, two years ago as an interactive way to portray the complex emotional issues that many young adults experience. The Stories of Substance theatre group uses a combination of drama, music and humor to perform incidences or events that have happened in Long Island students lives so they can explore their feelings and understand the consequences their actions might have on their health.
Stories of Substance are performed at many Long Island college orientations and at middle schools and high schools during the school year.
Students submit a story idea based on something that happened to them. “A story has to come from the truth,” Kathleen says. Story topics have included domestic violence, bullying, depression, self-harm, family alcoholism, eating disorders, sexting and drinking and driving.
Stories of Substance actors take the submissions, then write the play and perform it under Kathleen’s direction. After seeing the play, many audience members can relate to a particular character or situation and compare it to their own experience. The dramas allow them to talk openly about critical, often unexamined, issues affecting their lives. “They can feel the information before they even think about it,” Kathleen explains.
After a performance Kathleen says she usually receives many emails from students who want to share their stories. A typical response might be: “I saw your show and I didn’t realize my father was an alcoholic.”
These revelations and similar feedback from other students elates Kathleen. “It’s the beginning of the healing process,” she says. “It’s like: Here it is, make a choice.”
This fall, Kathleen is introducing a Stories of Substance pilot program that will reach a younger demographic at the West Babylon Junior High School. Students will have their own in-house Stories of Substance group, which will meet once a week. “They will be trained as peer educators and actors, and will take the submitted story, write the show and perform the play for their peers,” Kathleen explains. These plays create a vehicle to bring the students together, communicate a message, and, it is hoped, make a lasting impression that will lead to healthy life choices. “Many of these decisions start in junior high,” she says. “This [program] is young adults reaching young adults.”
Besides her health education program, Kathleen volunteers for many organizations throughout Long Island. She is an emergency room companion for the Victims Information Bureau of Suffolk County, and is on call to assist victims of domestic violence and/or sexual assault. She is also a public health educator for the Suffolk County Department of Health’s Learning to be Tobacco Free program.
For the Clubhouse of Suffolk County, a non-profit psychiatric rehabilitation and support agency, Kathleen teaches a course helping people recovering from mental illness. “They wanted to bring their members self-discovery through theatre,” she explains. “I don’t believe in lecturing. We get them up and moving.” It’s obvious by Kathleen’s expressive manner that working with this group is deeply satisfying. “We improve with them,” she says. “We teach them how to laugh, how to set boundaries.”
Kathleen believes in educating through feelings. She’s seen how one vivid scene in a play can produce a positive difference in someone’s life. Her passion for her work and her drive to help others is palpable as she speaks of the successful results her programs have produced. “Stories of Substance has been like a dream,” she says. “It’s grown into this amazing thing.”