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Puppets teach life's lessons

Children are not born alike. Some are born to be tall; some short. Some are really smart; others are not. Some are born with physical impairments or develop emotional handicaps that may make them appear different from other children.

There are some things, however, that most children have in common _ a love of pizza and ice cream, for instance. Most also need love and attention, and sometimes feel threatened by their peers and siblings and need additional encouragement to make them feel safe.

To help children understand their similarities and their differences, the Hernando school district has adopted a puppet theater program, called the Kids on The Block, that has been used in school districts nationwide for several years. The Hernando County Exceptional Student Education Department brought the program to Hernando County to help pupils adjust to the state's decision to mainstream, or blend, handicapped students into classrooms with non-handicapped students.

"The idea is to introduce children who are handicapped to the general populous," said Pat Nuzzi, the district's ESE coordinator. "With the increase of integration and inclusion, we want to show young children that they're more alike than they are different."

There are about 3,000 exceptional students, approximately 15 percent of the student population, in Hernando County schools. All of them spend some part of their school day with non-handicapped students. Mainstreaming benefits both the handicapped and non-handicapped student, Nuzzi said. The non-handicapped learn to empathize, and the handicapped learn to function in a real-life setting.

The puppets, which possess a variety of handicaps, are used to promote communication because they are friendly, child-like characters with which children feel comfortable talking. They are brought to life by the drama students in Dennis Caltagirone's classes at Springstead High School. Performances will be done upon request from elementary school teachers, Caltagirone said.

The group made its first presentation Monday at the Hernando County Exceptional Arts Festival, an event held each year for the district's ESE students. The puppets' first school performance will be on April 9 at Brooksville Elementary School.

Caltagirone said his students have been working hard on manipulating the puppets in order to make them appear lifelike. Puppet theater, he said, is an art that must be perfected like all other theatrical skills.

The students have also been trained in how to answer childrens' questions correctly. Common questions include how handicapped people dress or feed themselves. They wonder whether a handicapped student will ever drive a car or go to college, said Cheryl Smith, the district's ESE secretary, coordinator of the Exceptional Arts Festival and the mother of a handicapped boy.

"There are so many things that they wonder about, and are afraid to ask," Smith said. "The puppets are easy to talk to so they can find their answers. And what they're going to find is that their handicapped friends are not that different."

The puppets, which were purchased with federal and state funding provided to the ESE department, came with several scripts that were written by the Kids on The Block Inc. in Columbia, Md.

Each script features one puppet, or character, and addresses one issue at a time. For example, Bionic Legs addresses jealousy that is often felt by the non-handicapped sibling in a family with a handicapped member. Mark, a character with cerebral palsy, and his brother, Michael, are featured in the one-act play. Another, The Secret Code, features a blind boy, named Renaldo.

Emotional difficulties are also featured. One addresses the emotional trauma that is often felt by children whose parents are going through a divorce.

"The scripts are beautifully written, with compassion," Smith said. "Kids can really understand them. I know my own son could relate to them. He's feeling positive attention."

Caltagirone said his students have learned a lot from the puppets. They have gained understanding and appreciation, he said.

"This has been a real eye-opener for them," he said. "They have a better understanding of how a handicapped person feels."

That idea is the goal behind the program, Smith said: "If we reach the young children and relieve them of their fears and misunderstandings, acceptance will come."