The cranky, green dragon likes to eat only candy. That's a problem.
So when Food Bank Theater puppeteer Polla Milligan asked 11 kindergartners at the Charter School for Applied Technologies to tell her to try a strawberry, they yelled in unison: "Dragon, TRY IT!"
The message, of course, was intended to get the girls and boys to try new foods at home. Their enthusiastic reception was an example of how effective puppets can be in reaching children, whether spreading sound nutritional advice or, as practiced by the Kids on the Block puppet show for People Inc., demystifying disabilities.
"When I told the kids they were going to a puppet show, they were so excited," said Dina Ross, the kindergarten teacher. "It's something they're actually learning from, and they love it."
Milligan flexes an arm muscle one moment and runs in place the next as the children watch her in rapt attention. "You will grow up taller, stronger, smarter, healthier and better looking -- all those things if you eat healthy things," she tells them.
Holding up a bag of SpongeBob Squarepants Fruit Snacks, Milligan turns her attention to deceptive advertising, scolding the popular cartoon character.
"SpongeBob's trying to trick you. He wants you to think that if he calls it fruit snacks there's actual fruit in here. There's no fruit in here," Milligan said.
"This is candy, and at the Food Bank we call this once-in-awhile food, which means not every day, and not for breakfast or before going to bed."
Milligan, the Food Bank's development coordinator, began her puppet show two years ago. She doesn't have a background in puppeteering, but the former rock 'n' roll musician has a "long history of hamism," she said.
"I knew the schools were hurting for programming because there is not a lot of money for that, and even the Food Bank needs to give back because the community is so generous to us," she said.
Her audiences have included Cub Scouts, Head Start, day camps, churches and even birthday parties.
"I actually don't know what that mystical thing about puppets is, but I always say you could get kids to eat liver with puppets. They are universally loved," Milligan said.
Milligan also uses the puppet show to tell children to inform their teachers if they know any children who are going hungry. The teacher is given a list of Food Bank locations and information on healthy snacking ideas, which is also sent home to parents.
Brie Kishel also had no background in puppeteering when, while working for People Inc., she began volunteering nine years ago with the Kids on the Block, a national organization based in Williamsville that addresses a range of social issues.
Kishel is now project coordinator for People Inc., which helps people with disabilities to live independent lives. The puppet show educates young people about the ways people live with disabilities, and why they should look past those disabilities.
Like Milligan, Kishel marvels at how the children relate to the pull puppets, and she has a good idea why.
"The puppets are based on typical kids with real personalities, and I think the kids have a really easy time talking to them. I think they really forget we're behind the puppets, and they view the puppets as real kids just like themselves," Kishel said.
Performing with Muppet-like puppets in front of 10 third-graders at the charter school, she and Mark Harrington practiced an ancient Japanese form of puppetry called Bunraku, in which both were covered in black, from head to toe, to fade into the background as they manipulated the puppets.
The first skit involved 11-year-old Renaldo, who had a backpack and looked like any other youngster his age except that he used a cane and was blind.
Renaldo immediately surprised new friend Brenda by using his Braille watch to tell her what time it was. That led to a flurry of questions from Brenda, and Renaldo's explanations about how he dresses in bed, memorizes the steps he takes in school and how he was born blind.
In the next skit, Mark explains to his friend Melody that he's in a wheelchair because he was born with cerebral palsy.
Mark's strained vocal chords, voiced by Kishel, are the result of muscles that stiffen, he explains. "It's why I don't walk and sometimes I don't talk so good," Mark said.
Like Brenda, Melody peppered her friend with questions until, turning away with her hand burying her face, she rushes the words, "Mark, um, how do you go to the bathroom?"
That drew nervous laughter. Mark explained his use of handicapped-accessible bathrooms.
After each skit, the children are given a chance to ask questions, and hands fly in the air. At the conclusion, Kishel reinforces the message that people should never be defined by their disabilities.
"The disability is just a very small part of the person, so we shouldn't focus on the disability, we should focus on the person, right?" she says. "So, keep that in mind as you look around at your new classmates this year, and are meeting new friends."
Asked afterward if she learned anything, third-grader Lilly Gleason says she did.
"Never make fun of somebody who has a disability because that could make them really sad, and they won't want to be your friend," Lilly said.