Schools are headed back into session and buses are winding through neighborhoods again. This means that Kaiser Permanente’s Educational Theater troupe will soon be visiting schools to educate and entertain thousands of kids.

The free program has been around for 30 years and has served nearly 7 million children since its launch in 1985.

This is not just another production of "Oliver" or "Into the Woods." The theater program utilizes community needs assessments and Kaiser’s extensive collection of health data to design theatrical performances that address the most pressing health needs for kids grades K-12 and their families in at-risk situations.

“We’re trying to hook kids in with theater by putting educational messages in and around story, humor and characters they can identify with,” says Molly Jackson, associate director, Kaiser Permanente Southern California Educational Theater. “We’re trying to create theatrical performances where kids can see themselves, or their lives or world, up on stage.”

This year, the new emphasis is on a bullying awareness program titled “Someone Like Me.” Social media has changed the way kids interact, so the 50-minute performance for grades 6–8 is structured to promote discussion and educate kids about the topic.

Last year alone, the educational theater visited 528 locations in Southern California, educating more than 217,000 students and nearly 16,000 adults. Programs range from “Jay and E and the ZigZag Sea,” which promotes literacy, to “What Goes Around,” an STD prevention performance for high school teens.

How does the program measure the success of its performances? Besides focus groups and surveys, children turn out to be remarkably open when it comes to feedback.

“If high school kids aren’t laughing or are making fun of a hokey program, you’re dead,” Jackson says. “If middle school kids aren’t asking questions after the show, you’re not succeeding.”

The group that tours Southern California has 25 full-time actors who are professionally trained in theater and health education. The program hires local actors from the geographic region each program serves. And Kaiser knows that getting communities involved in their health is better for everyone.

“We’re trying to be another tool in the community’s toolbox. We’re certainly not the only answer, but we’re trying to help communities participate in being part of the solution,” says Jackson.