By Jamaica Ponder

CHICAGO (CBS) — The Storycatchers Theatre meets several times a week. They do warmups, vocal exercises, and get to know each other. The teen theater group writes and performs original musicals, developing the script along the way. But, what makes this troupe so special? They do this all from within the Illinois Youth Center correctional facility in Warrenville.

“I done wrote stories about my crime that I committed. Or like, what I’ve been through growing up, or stuff that I’ve seen,” said Shawn, a youth participant in the program. “We really can write whatever we want to… Because your story is something that you wanna share with somebody else. There’s really no limits to what you can write.”

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For many of the teens, it’s their first time ever participating in a theater program, and the way it made them feel was surprising.

“I really got stuff off my chest that I ain’t really tell nobody before,” Shawn said. “That like, relieved me inside.”

“I don’t like the center of attention. I don’t like being on stage or anything. But like, I had a lot of fun. I didn’t think I’d enjoy it, but I did,” said Sarah, another youth participant.

“It showed I’m brave,” she said. “I’m very brave for coming up on stage.”

“It actually surprised me, to be honest. ‘Cause I ain’t know I could do that,” Shawn said.

Storycatchers Executive Director Priya Shah says that writing and sharing stories is a powerful part of incarcerated youths’ journey through an unfair system.

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“When young people write their real life stories, and when the young people are crafting their stories and performing their stories and performing each other’s stories, these young people are seeing other youth as themselves and they’re also identifying with youth different than themselves,” Shah said.

“Often the young people are involved in the justice system because of lack of… investment into the infrastructure in their neighborhoods,” Shah added. “The system is stacked against them. We know these young people have a ton of barriers ahead of them as they are going through… getting out of the justice system.”

Storycatchers Theatre sees storytelling as an integral part of teaching incarcerated youth to see themselves as strong resilient people. The program provides platforms for the youth to advocate for themselves in front of legislators and policy makers.

One of their government partners is the Illinois Department for Juvenile Justice. IDJJ Director Heidi Mueller credits Storycatchers for the development of their policies surrounding youth incarceration.

“I think raising up the voices of the young people in the program and reaching a wider audience with those stories really helps to change the narrative about who the kids involved in the juvenile justice system are,” Muller said.

Storycatchers also operates out in the community. Once youth are released, they have the opportunity to hold a paid position with the Storycatchers; supporting teens through reentry into public life and soon, adulthood.

“I’ve been thinking about acting– signing up with Storycatchers once I get out,” Shawn said. “I can have better opportunities for myself. Make a better path than what I’ve been through so far.”

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You can learn more about the Storycatchers Theatre, their work, and how to volunteer on their website.