WEST JORDAN — It was a presentation that held every one of the Westland Elementary students spellbound to the end as puppets acted out encounters and true-to-life dialogue between children and their disabled peers.
The two handicapped puppets in the skits this week had cerebral palsy and Down syndrome, and both engaged in candid conversations explaining their disability to their curious fellow peer puppets.
The puppeteers, members of the Assistance League of Salt Lake City, incorporated the national program, called Kids on the Block, to help guide the reaction of children who encounter peers with disabilities and make students aware of their feelings, capabilities and needs.
The disability program features five skits, focusing on blindness, deafness, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome. There are also skits addressing social issues such as divorce, drugs, gangs and resolving conflict.
"We can come out and you can hear a pin drop," said league member and long-time puppeteer Nita Hurley. "We've never had a bad audience."
The skits encourage children to get involved with those with disabilities and shows students it is better to ask questions, even personal ones, than to make fun of and ignore them.
"The kids stay really focused on us during the skits, and we feel like they're getting the message," said Hurley.
Kathy Ridd, Westland Elementary principal, said the school is making proactive efforts to teach children the appropriate response and responsibility they have in interacting with people who have all kinds of differences.
"It is really a great program," said Ridd. "Anything we can do to get children to feel comfortable, safe and happy within themselves and with each other is important."
The puppets cost between $700 and $1,000 each and are so animated that children have approached performers after a skit and asked to talk to the puppets by name.
"I see it as a chance to teach tolerance and understanding," said Katie Smith, Salt Lake Kids on the Block chairwoman. "It's a chance to see that all kids are alike."
Some of the puppeteers have been performing in wide demand for 13 years and have been all over the Wasatch Front, performing at schools each Monday. To schedule a Kids on the Block performance, contact Smith at 446-9566.