SAN DIEGO — Lisa Doyle had heard her daughter cry one too many times. The kids at school ridiculed Jesse because of her tremulous voice, which had been ravaged by cerebral palsy. She begged to be transferred.
Instead of sending her daughter to another school, Doyle decided Jesse should meet some kids who understood her illness and could teach her friends about it. Four years ago, with several other concerned women, Doyle helped bring the nationally renowned Kids on the Block program to San Diego.
The "kids" are puppets with disabilities such as blindness, diabetes, epilepsy and, like Jesse, cerebral palsy. With a staff of volunteers, the show tours elementary schools throughout San Diego County three days a week.
"What we are after is to create a positive environment for the disabled child," said program coordinator Mary Waldman. "We want to change attitudes toward disabilities."
The puppeteers, dressed inconspicuously in black, maneuver the near-life-size puppets through a 45-minute program of skits. The sketches emphasize that the Kids on the Block have the same hopes, dreams and fears as all children.
Puppet "Valerie Perkins"--a spunky 14-year-old with spina bifida, a disease that destroys the spine--dreams of becoming a cheerleader. The heavy metal braces that encase her legs and the crutches on her arms don't stop her from trying out for pep squad, even though she's as nervous as any other girl trying out.
The puppet show is so popular that Waldman has already booked her 20 volunteers through most of the 1988-89 school year.
The program is run jointly by the San Diego Junior League and the Easter Seals Society. Other local charities donate the puppets, colorful rag dolls with wide mouths and round eyes that cost $500 to $900 each. The Epilepsy Society of San Diego County purchased epileptic puppet "Brian McDaniel" for the troupe.
It was puppet "Mark Riley" that helped Jesse Doyle tell her friends about cerebral palsy.
Mark doesn't let the disease stop him from having fun. At 12, he is extroverted and energetic, popping wheelies in his wheelchair, or "cruiser," as he calls it. Still, he has a jerky voice and little muscle control.
"Mark drools, and Jesse has a hard time with that, too," explained her mother. Hearing the puppet talk about cerebral palsy supplied Jesse with the words and ideas to discuss her own situation, Doyle said.
"The puppet does it so much more easily," Doyle said. "It puts the focus where you want it--on somebody else--but it still imparts the information about the disease."
Each disabled puppet appears with an able-bodied friend, who, like most children, is curious about something, maybe a prosthetic arm, but is too shy to ask about it.
"This show tells kids to go out and ask their peers, 'Why do you have those crutches on?' " Doyle said.
She noted that children are gradually losing their inhibitions. During a recent performance at Bostonia Elementary School in El Cajon, the students showed little fear or embarrassment when they asked questions at the end of the performance.
"Why did your hair fall out?" one student asked puppet "Diane Delaney," 12, who covers her bald head with a pink scarf. Diane lost her hair following chemotherapy treatment for leukemia.
"Will your hair grow back?" asked another student. Diane joked that "bald is beautiful" and said she'd be happy even if her hair didn't grow back, as long as she stayed healthy. Then came a tougher question. "Will you die?" asked a third-grader. Diane conceded that yes, she might.
Five years ago, most children wouldn't ask such questions, Doyle said. They followed their uneasy parents' advice not to stare at, talk about or acknowledge a person's disability. Those children ended up ignoring the handicapped person or teasing them to hide their own uneasiness.
Such trepidation is what prompts puppet "Nguyen Huy Nam" to describe his friend Brian's epileptic seizures as "fits." Nothing makes Brian angrier. When Nam learns he was absent from school the day Brain had a fit, he begs him to repeat it.
"The kids said that you get all stiff and then you fall down," Nam said. "Then you start shaking all around, and get green and purple and sparks come out your ears and your teeth get blue and stick out like fangs . . . "
Brian sets him straight. A seizure , he explained, can be scary for someone who has never seen one. But he rarely has them now that he takes medication. And he doesn't turn purple; he passes out and shakes for a few minutes.
"I might grow out of it anyway," Brian tells him.
Epileptic seizures were something Fay Pisciotta, 8, had never heard of before the Kids on the Block came to her school.
"I felt sorry for him," she said of Brian after the performance. "I wouldn't stare at him, because it's not his fault. But I never knew about epilepsy. I might have stared and thought something was wrong before."
Waldman hopes the program continues to foster such attitudes.
"Every kid gets teased about something, whether it's braces on their teeth or braces on their legs," she said.
One puppet who has pimples and another who is overweight are every bit as concerned about their differences as Valerie is about her leg braces and Brian is about his seizures.
Barbara Aiello, who created the Washington, D.C.-based Kids on the Block 11 years ago, wrote in an informational brochure: "People haven't been made comfortable with differences. As a result, our fears cut us off from a very important segment of society. The important thing is to realize that disabilities are not defects, but rather examples of life's natural diversities that enrich us all."
Handicaps are relative, at least according to one student who wrote this letter to Valerie:
I enjoyed the show. I don't think that handicapped kids are any different than other people. Everyone has a handicap in one thing. I have a handicap in social studies.