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FAN Club Puppets Speak to Young Audiences

Network, Spring 2004

Simon, Jason, Tara and Marcus are members of a troupe of actors who are making a big impression on young children in schools in the Grey Bruce area. They seem to have the same kinds of problems that all kids have: the class bully who always gets his way, the smart kid who makes you look and feel stupid. Some things just never change. But the actors have some answers that make sense, and the way they act out their stories makes sense to their young audience too. These actors aren’t just ordinary kids though, they are child-sized puppets, worked by puppeteers who stand behind them and provide the voice.

“When I first heard about this I thought that the puppeteer would dominate, but it’s not at all like that,” says Marion Wright, executive director of CMHA, Grey Bruce Branch. “The children identify completely with the puppets. First of all these are their peers. They speak to them in their lan-guage about everyday events. And they don’t use adult or mental health care terms about these experiences.”

Each puppet in the Friends and Neighbours (FAN) Club has a name and a character that is uniquely his or hers — a complete biography, in fact — and that character is maintained throughout the presentation and carries over into the question-and-answer period that follows each skit. To reflect the cultural diversity in the Grey Bruce area, the troupe includes two First Nation puppets. One of the most pop-ular puppets is Bingo, a big, hairy, scruffy dog. But perhaps the most unusual one is Nicholas Oliver Teen (Nick-O-Teen) — a puppet with a problem, he is a four-foot-high cigarette with bags under his eyes and a hacking cough. The response to these puppets has been so positive that Grey Bruce Branch is planning to have a fan club where children can write in with their questions to the puppet of their choice, and the puppets will reply.

The focus of the program is children aged 4 to 11. A typical show lasts about 30 minutes and includes a skit or presentation followed by a question-and-answer period. Activity books have also been developed so that the teachers can build upon the topics pre-sented and do follow-up work in the classroom. Although the primary venue is through the schools, Grey Bruce Branch is also looking at day-care centres and holiday camps.

The Phoenix Centre for Children and Families in Pembroke, Ontario, who initially developed this program, continue to make the puppets and write the scripts. With the help of a steering committee of community representatives, CMHA, Grey Bruce Branch then adapts each script to reflect the needs of the local community.

The main thrust of the program is to raise awareness of good mental health while dealing with issues such as bullying, self-esteem and attention deficit disorder, but there has been a side benefit to the program. Most of the puppeteers are young people from the community who are involved in drama clubs at high school. Not only have they been trained to operate the puppets, but because they also have to answer the questions raised by the children at the end of each presentation, they have received quite intensive training on mental health issues. “We’re not just reaching the younger children with strategies to ensure good mental health,” says Wright. “We are also, through our training program, able to discuss how important good mental health is with the teenagers who are working the puppets.”

The FAN Club is raising awareness at all levels within the community. They have received strong endorsement for the program from the school boards in the area, and local sponsors have covered the cost of the puppets and scripts. “The FAN Club is all about primary health prevention and mental health awareness. The skits that we do and the topics we cover from a child’s perspective are paramount to building good mental health,” says Wright. “This program is a joy.”

For more information on the Grey Bruce Friends and Neighbours (FAN) Club, call CMHA, Grey Bruce Branch at 519-371-3642.

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