Hillsborough County Commissioner Rose Ferlita started the Anti Bullying Advisory Committee in the spring of 2009. The committee's objective, with its high-profile "Bully Buster" campaign, is to combat the ever-rising problem of bullying among young people.
I must admit I was skeptical about the effort from the beginning. To me, it seemed to be just another commissioner's pet project. I was totally uninformed. I hadn't given the subject of bullying any thought, so I started attending the committee meetings.
That's where I met Patricia "Trish" Sandag. She works for the Child Abuse Council, a Hillsborough County nonprofit, and is the project manager for the "Kids on the Block" puppet show program. Trish's program teaches about bullying and child abuse in elementary schools. More than 15 years before Ferlita started her advisory committee, the Child Abuse Council was already in full gear combating the problem, Trish told me.
When she explained to me how her organization uses life-sized puppets to teach antibullying, I was intrigued. I definitely had to check out this organization.
She told me that more than 30,000 elementary students in over 140 schools see the show annually. In most instances, it's third- and fourth-grade students in the audience. There are two shows per day at various schools.
The council held a puppet show last month at Robles Elementary School, and I went to see these puppets in action. School Board member Doretha Edgecomb was there, too. Ironically, the very first puppet show was held at Robles back when Edgecomb was the principal there more than 15 years ago.
The show I witnessed was informative, educational and well organized. The 50 or so children in the audience were very engaged and seemed to enjoy every minute of the show.
Afterward, an instructor from the Child Abuse Council posed questions to the audience. The children eagerly raised their hands, hoping to participate in the dialogue. Not only had they been educated, but they were entertained. Even I walked away with more knowledge about bullying and how to deal with it.
Paul D'Agostino, the executive director of the council, said the group has lost some of its funding in the recession, which could put the puppet show in a financial crisis in coming years.
For now, the puppets are getting a well-deserved rest over the summer and plan to come back next school year to teach and perform in front of thousands of students.
I urge those who can to support the Child Abuse Council and its many social projects. This puppet show is of tremendous value to our elementary school students. It helped me to realize that bullying is a huge problem, and I really appreciate how Commissioner Ferlita has personally invested herself and the weight of her elected office into finding a solution.
Al Mccray is a Tampa resident and freelance writer whose work occasionally appears in the Times. He can be reached at [email protected]