Children’s theater rocked by theft

By KARL SCHWEIZER

Herald Writer

EVERETT — Childhood sex abuse is an ugly problem, made uglier because the abusers often are relatives of the victims.

One home-grown program designed to prevent such abuse has been hammered by budget cuts and now the theft of its main computer, said its only paid staff member.

Kelly Gillum, administrator of the Open Door Theatre, said the acting troupe’s computer recently was stolen out of its donated office in an Everett Compass Health building.

With it went the school names, actors’ schedules and other information vital for the theater group, whose 15 specially trained actors put on skits to teach area schoolchildren how to resist and report sexual abuse.

"I have been in tears," Gillum said. "I know how hard our board has been working to try to keep the doors open."

It hasn’t been easy, she said.

School districts faced with tightening budgets aren’t ordering as many of the skits.

The troupe put on 138 skits in the 1999-2000 school year, down from 210 just three years ago. The troupe charges $425 for each performance.

Grant funding has also dropped from $30,000 to $24,000 a year.

Budget cuts forced the group’s board this year to lay off Hal Ryder, the theater’s director for eight of the group’s 17 years, Gillum said.

The budget, set at $158,000 two years ago, has been trimmed to $97,000.

But the group’s leaders are determined to turn things around.

Six months ago, Bothell businessman John Arndt took over as board president.

Arndt, who said he was chosen for his fund-raising skills, was hooked on the program after he once saw a performance of "Talk About Stuff" for fourth-graders.

"The story is, mom is working at the grocery store late at night. The boyfriend comes over to the house, and he says to her two kids, ‘Hey, who wants ice cream?’ Of course the kids jump up and down," Arndt said.

"Then he asks, ‘Well, who wants to go get ice cream?’ The little boy jumps up, but the little girl says she really wants to go! Well, he sends the boy off and says ‘Come here, little Suzy. Come sit on my lap. I’m going to rub your shoulders like last time."

At some point, inappropriate contact occurs, Arndt said. The actors explain that it was wrong and demonstrate how a child in that situation could "say no like you mean it," Arndt said.

The group also offers "Stop It Now," a play for children in kindergarten through third grade, and "Choices For Teens" for older children.

The skits encourage children to recognize sexual abuse, to resist it and to report it.

But keeping the skits going, even on a shoestring budget, requires money. Arndt’s been hitting up businesses for donations. Gillum is selling $1 tickets to a drawing, the grand prize of which is a Sacred Circle print with a gift certificate for a frame, valued at $500. Second prize is a $400 gift certificate to the Alderwood Mall in Lynnwood.

Small steps toward the bigger goal of fighting sexual abuse.

"If there are a bunch of people out there who will help this program grow, well, you know what, it’s our future," Arndt said. "These kids are going to be taking care of me in 35 years."

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