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Students, staff embrace theater work program

WBTT News

Thomas Kogler's plan is to complete his general education credits at Century College before transferring to a four-year school to work on his social work license. In the interim, he is a star employee at the Emagine White Bear Theater (formerly White Bear Township Theater), where he manages much of the food preparation, cooking and sales; as well as cleaning and maintenance services. He works 30 hours per week, saving money for his college tuition.

Thomas got his start last year as a student at Capitol View Center, which is also where he was inspired to pursue social work. "I had some tough times at Capitol View," he said. "The social workers there really helped me out. They inspired me to help others in the same way they helped me." He is now a student at WELS North.

"Thomas came here on day one with great skills," said Danya Troxel, an education assistant (EA) and longtime 916 employee who manages the program at the theater. "In the last year, we have really seen him improve in his approach to customer service and self-advocacy," she said. Thomas is doing so well, that he has moved into an assistant trainer role for the kitchen. Thomas will likely graduate mid-year, and the theater staff see him moving into even more of a leadership role.

More than 20 years ago, the program got its start with just a few students popping popcorn for the theater patrons. Now, it is a premier vocational training program for students at Bellaire, Quora, South Campus, WELS North and WELS South. In a newly-renovated classroom space, students learn everything from math and money skills to career essentials like equity, harassment, and resume writing. The students, who mostly identify as male, also attend a men's group led by Kevin Horst where they can ask questions about shaving, dating and more.

Thomas working Over more than two decades, 1,100 students have passed through the program. Danya has kept in touch with many of them, and their feedback has helped shape the program into one that teaches students skills that can transfer to any profession, not just theater and concessions. One alumnus, who is now in his 30s, recently visited with his five-year-old daughter, and told Danya about his job as a Target store manager. The man had previously struggled with aggressive behavior, and credited the theater program with teaching him the social and vocational skills he needed to live the life he wanted and deserved.

The theater recently underwent a six-month renovation that added a bar, new concessions, a party room, and the luxurious seats and services that movie patrons have now come to expect. There were such drastic changes, that 916 employees and managers of the theater had to relocate classroom space to the second floor. The second floor had seen better days, but the theater was determined to set students and staff up for success with a real classroom. General Manager Dawn Markling called in a favor with Lowe's, where she used to work. Lowe's sent a team over to swap dated maroon carpet for hardwood floors, paint the walls a soothing silver blue, and replace stained ceilings with fresh tile. Staff -- including Danya and Thomas, and another EA, Tricia Gray -- have been patching walls, sanding, painting, and scrubbing the place clean the last several weeks as they prepare to welcome the first students of the 2018-19 school year.

There is still work to do. There is more to clean and decades of promotional products to recycle. They want to set up a "relax room" for students who need a break from school or work to calm down. Danya wants to hang our equity statement on the wall, and a sign for the door of the classroom. "I feel honored that the new owners of this theater view our students and this program as an integral part of the community," she said. "Having a permanent space that is ours to design is a symbol of their commitment to our students."

Thomas is impressed. "During the renovations it was pretty crazy," he said. "But this has made a huge difference."