Odd Jobs: Puppeteers - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Odd Jobs: Puppeteers

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Bullying and abuse can be hard topics for kids to talk about. Luckily, Claire and Eddie help get the conversation started.

Claire: Now tell me what's wrong.

Eddie: I'm having problems with this kid at school.

Claire: Yeah.

They visited Fairfax Elementary with the rest of the Puppets in Education troupe. Their goal is to teach kids how to deal with tough situations, while empowering them to share their own experiences.

"They feel like the puppets are their buddies. So they tell their stories to their buddies and they feel comfortable. It's just magical," said Karen Sharpwolf, a puppeteer.

Karen Sharpwolf and Sarah Vogelsang-Card are in charge of bringing the three-and-a-half-foot tall characters to life.

"Eddie, who are you talking to down there," said Sarah, a puppeteer.

They say the only way kids connect is if the puppets feel real. And when that happens the results can be astounding.

"When we do abuse prevention kids raise their hands, they tell the puppet things in front of their whole classes, things that are going on in their lives. We had a student raise their hand a couple of years ago and said what's happening to you, puppet, is happening to me at home. And he hadn't told anyone," said Sarah.

The group operates out of Burlington, but has visited schools throughout the region for 33 years. You may remember them as Champlain Valley Kids on the Block. In the 1980s, they tackled topics related to disabilities, each year adding programs about abuse, mental health, cultural diversity, drug prevention and local environmental issues. In 2009, they expanded once more, adding autism awareness to their repertoire and changed their name to Puppets in Education. They reached more than 10,000 kids last year.

"We come up with our own voices, our own versions of those puppets because that's just part of the magic of making them alive," said Sarah.

Karen: Sarah's tend to be a little sillier than mine.

Sarah: Yeah, I tend to be a little silly.

Sarah has a background in art, performance and dance. Karen studied education, discovered she enjoyed teaching through non-traditional forms and fell in love with puppeteering.

"There's the art form of making sure that the puppet really looks alive, you have to make sure the eyes are focused properly that the mouth is opening when it's supposed to be opening," said Karen.

It's on-the-job training. Sarah and Karen use a style of puppetry called “boondracou.” Reporter Jennifer Costa volunteered for a crash course.

"You want to make sure you can see out the front. We kind of call ourselves the puppet ninjas. The kids can still see our faces, but the puppets are so large and colorful we just blend right into the background," said Sarah.

They're not ventriloquists and many newbies make the mistake of doing the lip synchronization backwards. In the biz, it's called catching flies.

"We open instead of close. Do you want to try," said Sarah.

Costa: Ah.

After a few false starts you get the hang of it.

Costa: Do the kids ever know that you're here?

Sarah: Sometimes they will ask us questions like we're real kids!

"We definitely have an Odd Job. But I think we have a very important job," said Sarah.

"I think we have an odd, awesome job," said Karen.

"An odd, awesome job," said Sarah.

The puppeteers say it's about more than just perfecting gestures and learning lines. It's grass roots work. Executive Director Deb Lyons joins the pair in puppeteering, fundraising, marketing and training volunteers. The only way the trio is able to reach so many kids is through community sponsorships.

"We're changing their lives, but we're also giving them the tools to build friendships and to be able to live in an inclusive community and that's powerful," said Sarah.

And these interactive shows seem to be connecting with kids.

"People really shouldn't be bullying, so I think it's a really good thing if there were any bullies in this school that they should know to stop," said Cordelia King, a third-grader.

It's an odd job pushing past entertainment to address the heart of childhood struggles in the Green Mountains.

Puppets in Education presentation costs schools between $1,600 and $2,500. If you'd like to get involved, the group is always looking for volunteers to puppeteer or help out at puppet headquarters.

Jennifer Costa is always looking for new Odd Jobs. If you have an Odd Job or know someone who does send us an email at news@wcax.com.

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