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Church youth use puppets to share message

STERLING – A group of local students is using puppetry, music and dance to share their personal stories of faith.

The S.W.A.T. Team of Full Gospel Assembly Church in Sterling is a puppet ministry team of students with a testimony, or a story of faith. They give shows at churches, nursing homes and community events and aim to share the love of God with others, director Deb Helt said.

Senovia Grier, 16, of Sterling is one of the student puppeteers.

“[Our puppets] allow us to be a light for the world, but in a different way: We’re not telling people, but we’re showing them through the puppets,” Grier said. “We make people laugh and smile.”

“It’s awesome, because puppets branch out to all ages,” said Ashley Richards, 17, a Dixon High School student. “It’s so cool that we’re blessed with the ability to go out and share this message we have with people.”

The group came about almost 20 years ago; many of the current team members are the sons and daughters of the founders, Helt said.

The youth of the church wanted something else to do together; they had a basketball team, but they needed a more creative outlet, she said.

At its height, the S.W.A.T. Team had as many as 30 members who competed at puppetry festivals and performed at churches throughout the country, Helt said. Today, the team has about a dozen members who perform shows for the church, as well as by request for community organizations.

“I like to help out other people,” said Debra Boehme, 23, of Rock Falls, the most senior puppeteer on the squad. “And I thought this was a ministry I could do, that it was something that would impact other people’s life in a good way

The team is completely youth- and family-driven, Helt said.

The youths and their families made the first puppet theater from a clothesline and a blanket, she said, and the first puppets were made from socks.

They since have raised enough money to buy 40 puppets – some named after the church members who paid for them – and created a transportable puppet stage, complete with a sound system.

The S.W.A.T. Team got most of its puppets – a mix of people, animals and other creatures – from One Way Street, now a part of Creative Ministry Solutions, which provides creative teaching resources for churches. The puppets look like those used in “Sesame Street” and include human-arm puppets, rod-arm puppets and moving-mouth puppets.

The youths spend weeks – even months – training their arms to hold up and control the 2-pound puppets for a few minutes at a time (exercises they have nicknamed “puppet aerobics”), as well as developing voices, personalities and backstories for the puppets, Helt said.

Some of the students have attended puppetry training classes, but most have learned from other team members, she said. The group rehearses for a couple of hours every Tuesday, whether a show is coming up or not, she said.

“It’s fun to come up with a character all our own,” said Richards, who controls “Spice,” a fuzzy monster with orange fur and yellow hair. “Spice is really just me protected through a puppet. She’s like this scatterbrained but excited little girl. She likes to have fun and be goofy, … but she is serious when it comes to knowing the scriptures.

“It’s just neat that we can project all that through a puppet.”

The team uses familiar music, just with different words. The group gets its music from the Righteous Pop Music line of parodies – Christian lyrics set to the tunes of popular songs – which also falls under the Creative Ministry Solutions umbrella. The youths this past week rehearsed “Love is a Wonderful Thing” to the tune of a Michael Bolton song by the same name.

The S.W.A.T. Team at its core is an avenue for the youths of the church to not only be themselves, but to talk about and share their faith with others – a tall order for most kids, who might suffer ridicule or bullying for being different, Helt said.

“You can do and say things with a puppet that you can’t otherwise,” she said. “The children have something they can do, and they can see that something they do is positive, affects other people, and is valid.

“This is theirs. They own this.”

Puppet show

The S.W.A.T. Team of Full Gospel Assembly Church will perform a puppet show at 7 p.m. Dec. 7 at the church, 3807 23rd St., Sterling.

Admission is free, but donations are accepted to support the team.

For more information, or to book the team for an event, call director Deb Helt at 815-499-1588.

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