Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Traveling Show Is a Reality Check

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Traveling Show Is a Reality Check

Article excerpt

A traveling reality theater brings forward startling statistics that remind one of the fleeting nature of life for those who make youthful mistakes.

The 99 Manasota, a traveling walk-through youth outreach, stops in Bradenton for performances the next four weeks. Its bright red tent is embossed with 99, referring to the number of 18- to 24-year- olds who die in this country every day.

Organizers expect 20,000 people to visit five rooms that vividly illustrate the top five reasons young adults die.

"A teenager is texting and driving and had a head-on collision with a family," said Tom Whitaker, who helped bring the production here. "It demonstrates the results of a poor choice. You literally walk in to the accident just as it happened with smoke still going up."

The sense of realism is what struck Whitaker when he saw The 99 in Lakeland three years ago. He contacted members of the One Original Manatee County religious group and received a call in November from Terry Henshaw, executive director of the Tulsa, Okla.- based 99 program.

More than 13 churches in Manatee and Sarasota counties are taking part, contributing the 250 volunteer actors needed to portray the victims of car crashes, drug overdoses and other situations.

Whitaker said he was impressed by the impact of portrayals of a teenage suicide, the stark image of a girl sitting in a bean bag chair after shooting herself, and a crack house, where a young man has a needle in his arm.

"I know this needed to come to our region," Whitaker said. "You'll find yourself in one of these rooms, either you or someone you know."

Whitaker was distributing brochures near a convenience store last week when a woman in a car took one, enthusiastically responding that she would bring women from a shelter she runs. A friend in Tampa let him know his nephew recently died of a drug overdose in Fort Lauderdale.

"He said, 'We need to get his message out,'" Whitaker said. "I've had three people tell me that in the last week."

Henshaw noted common sense is all that is required by young adults in some instances. Of the 31 young adults who die each day from auto accidents, 17 would likely still be alive if they had worn a seat belt.

While that is particularly important to Henshaw, who has a 17- year-old daughter, the other aspects depicted in the theater hit home for others.

"We deal with violence and suicide and anger, bullying and things kids are going through," he said. "They either see themselves or they see this is where their life is headed. It's a wake-up call."

The experience also should serve as a call to Christ, religious leader John Skorski said.

Skorski and wife, Michelle, an area Christian music radio personality, have operated The Front ministry for 25 years to reach out to young adults.

"It will be one of the most amazing events as far as evangelism," Skorski said. …

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