From the outside, it looks like any other place in the neighborhood. Newish home. Hibiscus in bloom. Fresh mulch. But inside, just past the kitchen, is a small room where Jill Helgeson, 54, makes puppets. Real life, like-the-Muppets puppets.
For nearly a dozen years, she has made them for her church's puppet ministry, which she also directs. Now, she's aiming to expand and sell her specially made puppets online through Jill Marie Puppets.
On a recent morning, friend and puppeteer Lynne Carver, 64, joined Helgeson along with Judy, a red-haired rod-arm puppet with a loud, infectious laugh.
Carver and Helgeson work together as part of Puppets for Jesus at the Spring Hill United Church of Christ, where Helgeson's husband serves as the pastor.
They agree that while the puppets are fun, people connect with them in unique and sometimes surprising ways.
"You get attached to them," said Carver. "I couldn't leave Judy in the car by herself last night."
Helgeson's youngest daughter, Brittina Helgeson, 23, just graduated from a school in Ohio with her master's degree in social work. She has worked with puppets since sixth grade and plans to use them in her practice.
Age doesn't matter, she said by phone from her home in Cleveland.
"You have people in their 80s and 90s who don't respond to anything, but will respond to a puppet," she said.
Carver, a retired social worker, is also convinced of their magic.
"Sometimes as we get older, it can be difficult to find things that give us a thrill," she said. "With (Judy's) red hair, freckles and big mouth, some people say she's my alter ego."
Carver zips through the puppets' personalities by way of introduction, like you might a group photo of a large family.
"This one's really shy," she said of a curly-haired puppet with glasses.
Helgeson can make just about anything and has a streak of perfectionism.
"Both of my grandmothers were seamstresses," she said. "I began sewing in the seventh grade and fell in love with it."
And when she's ready to deliver her creations, even before their puppeteer grants them a personality, they already seem lifelike.
"I don't deliver them in plastic bags," said Helgeson, looking at the smiling faces of the puppets sitting on an easy chair in her living room.
Helgeson admits she's a creator, not a marketer. But she's willing to try selling her lifelike creations on the Web.
"I hope to sell puppets to teachers, social workers, churches, and any others who would like to use puppets to teach, inspire or bring joy," she said.
Shary Lyssy Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.