LEAWOOD, Kan. -- For nearly 40 years, The Kids on the Block puppet program has been educating children about disabilities in a fun and entertaining way. Adults usually work the puppets but now, in a unique twist, two of the Kansas City Kids on the Block puppeteers are kids themselves. And they are the FOX 4 Reaching 4 Excellence Young Achievers of the Week.
With 3rd graders at Prairie Star Elementary School in Leawood looking on in wide-eyed delight, two boys in the shadows deftly bring large puppets to life -- memorable characters delivering an important life lesson.
"It's really cool how you can kind of see, like, how the kids react to what you are doing," said puppeteer Jack Reeves. Jack and Jack Litwin, both 7th graders, are by far the youngest puppeteers for the Kansas City Kids on the Block troupe.
They perform as Melody and her spunky new friend Mark Riley, a boy with cerebral palsy who uses a wheelchair.
"They're learning what it's like to have a disability," said Jack Reeves of the children watching their performance. "It kind of helped them learn that everyone's the same even though they might look different on the outside."
"We're trying to make them aware," said Jack Litwin. "Disability doesn't mean you can't do something. It just means you do something in a different way."
The boys found The Kids on the Block when Jack Litwin went looking for a service project for his bar mitzvah and wanted to do something to honor his good friend, Sam Reeves, who has mild cerebral palsy. That drew Jack Reeves into the project, as well, because he and Sam are twins. Sam watched his brother and his friend in their Prairie Star school performance and saw some irony in what the 3rd graders got from it.
"Because they are puppets and stuff," said Sam, "I think it became a lot more realistic to them. And I think they understood it better."
"They worked really hard," said Susan Gates, Kids on the Block Kansas City program director.
Gates presents with the boys. She trained them and says the two Jacks dove right in -- learning the scripts, rehearsing and doing research.
"They were very good," said Gates. "They had done their homework. And they took it very seriously. They didn't miss a practice."
And this performance?
"A plus, A plus, A plus," said Gates enthusiastically.
Kids on the Block performances include fun hands-on activities, as well, and the boys had the children simulate what it might be like to be blind or have CP. There's also Q and A. So Jack and Jack have to be prepared and knowledgeable to answer the kids' questions accurately.
"And my class, they were so engaged," said teacher Erika Haas. Haas says the message had great impact for her students because it came from two skilled and dedicated boys not much older than they are.
"These weren't adults putting on a performance," said Haas. "These were their peers performing. I think they learn so much from their peers. And I think that spoke volumes that they can do it, too. They can go out and they can make a difference and they can educate others, no matter what your age is."
Just like two young puppeteers in the spotlight as they work in the shadows.
The Kids on the Block locally is a project of United Cerebral Palsy of Greater Kansas City. Puppets represent eight different conditions, including CP and visual and hearing impairments. For more information on The Kids on the Block and how to arrange a presentation for a school or group, go to http://ucpkc.org/get-involved/volunteer/ .