Eight-year old Alexi is hiding in a closet with his younger brother.
It’s a game they often play called “invisibility cloak” because, as Alexi says, “Being invisible is the best superpower.”
But the real story is that their mother locked them in the closet for their own safety. Ultimately, domestic violence drove them into homelessness.
It’s one child’s story of being homeless of a dozen told through the play, “I Will Be Your Voice.” Alexi, portrayed by Dominic Saxman, 9, of Enola, is one of the youngest in a cast comprised of area children.
For about five minutes, he sits perched on a stool before a crowd of about 200 people. They’re gathered for the play’s debut in late November at the Unitarian Universalists of the Cumberland Valley in Boiling Springs. His boyish voice, amplified by a microphone, gives voice to Alexi’s story.
“I’ve interviewed and spoken with hundreds of homeless children in the past 20 years,” said playwright Chris Kapp, manager of the coordinated entry system for 11 Pennsylvania counties based in Carlisle.
Kapp works under the umbrella of the Cumberland County Housing and Redevelopment Authorities. All 12 of the play’s monologues are actual stories she documented, detailing how area children became homeless.
“It’s been 10 years in the making,” Kapp said. “It’s the intersection of two gifts and vocations. I’ve worked with the homeless by day for 20 years, and I’ve been in theater for almost 35 years. Finding a way to have them come together is an incredible gift.”
Her goal is to increase awareness of the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population—families with children. In between the children’s monologues, a narrator provides backstories as well as facts and stats.
This current school year (2019-20), there are 30,000 homeless children attending Pennsylvania schools; 199 are in Cumberland County classrooms.
School provides meals, heat and a reliable, predictable schedule—a safe haven from homelessness—for 11-year old Gabe. His story, told by Zach Woodward, 12, of Carlisle, explains how he finds refuge in math: “Numbers make me feel safe because they don’t change.”
Cheyanne, 15, became homeless after she endured years of bullying by her older brothers. Called “sibling violence,” the situation became unbearable, and she began sleeping in an area park overnight. One of her teachers recognized her and helped her into a youth shelter.
“Twelve-year-olds shouldn’t know what the word ‘foreclosure’ means,” said Alyanna Grim, portraying Maddie. Her story focuses on lot of things that “shouldn’t” be in her young life.
Katelynn’s story recounts how her father’s job loss led to homelessness. The family spent the summer living in a tent at the nearby state park, followed by months living out of their minivan.
There are bright spots throughout the stories.
Emmanne’s success in high school, along with support from her advocate, propelled her to Cornell University. This, despite being homeless and living in six different motels with her schizophrenic mother during her teen years.
“I started crying the first time I read the script because it hit me that these are real stories,” said Torrence Brown, 16, who portrayed Emmanne.
Many of the cast’s children—from six school districts between Harrisburg and Newville—say the experience opened their eyes and changed them.
“Homelessness comes in many shapes and sizes, and no kid deserves to be homeless,” said 13-year-old Greta Weirich of Carlisle.
“After hearing the stories, it made me feel thankful,” said 17-year-old Jaden O’Brian of Enola. “Homelessness is much more common than we think, and it woke me up. Sometimes it’s just simple, not big things that cause homelessness,”
O’Brian gave the final performance of the night, but it was his first ever experience on stage. He gave voice to the story of 19-year-old The’ron, who was homeless for two years.
The’ron had something in common with the abandoned buildings he lived in—he was abandoned by his mother. But a child welfare advocate connected him with services, including a volunteer position at a senior center, which sparked his pursuit of a college degree and career path as a senior center activity director. Residents at the center where he volunteered watched O’Brian’s portrayal of The’ron in “I’ll Be Your Voice,” thanks to a livestream via Facebook.
“Having them connect the stories to where they are in life, by playing children exactly their ages,” said Manuela Saxman of Enola. “It’s a beautiful thing because it impacts them personally.”
Three of her children, including O’Brian, were in the play.
As for the audience, many were moved to tears during the show.
“I thought about the issue of homelessness before, but I didn’t think about children—I didn’t know there were so many,” said Lani Breidenstein of Carlisle. “I cried because, although I knew they were actors, the stories were real.”
Playwright Chris Kapp designed “I’ll Be Your Voice” to be performed by school districts, theater companies, church youth groups and other community groups. She welcomes the public to contact her for licensing rights by emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org.