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Up in Smoke

Free puppet show teaches kids about the dangers of tobacco

April 2009

By Rachel Winters

Frances Jones, age 27, is originally from Nashville, Tennessee, and has been a puppeteer for more than two years with “Too Cool to Smoke: with Kids on the Block,” M. D. Anderson’s free puppet show that teaches kids in kindergarten through fourth grade about the dangers of tobacco use.

Frances Jones became a puppeteer because it sounded like fun. She has continued to perform for more than two years because of the impact she‘s made on children’s lives.

“I started doing the puppet show because I heard about it through an email someone forwarded to me and thought, ‘How cool would being a puppeteer be,’” says Frances, as she throws her head back with laughter. “I’m kind of a nerd and like doing unusual stuff, so I signed-up.”

Frances, a health educator for Texas Children’s Health Plan, and her younger sister, age 25, now perform an average of three puppet shows a month at schools, parks, daycare centers, recreation and community centers, and libraries throughout the Houston area.

“I started puppeteering mainly because it seemed like fun, but I continue to do it because the program teaches kids how to resist peer pressure and stay tobacco free,” Frances says. “I love the little kids, and they ask such good questions, like ‘What’s the difference between heroin, cigarettes and cocaine?’ I feel the show makes a huge impact. It helps little kids know what to do when they’re around older kids and grown-ups who smoke.”

Teen Smoking Statistics Are Not Very Cool
M. D. Anderson’s Public Education Office launched “Too Cool to Smoke” in January 2004 to educate youth in the Houston area about the dangers of using tobacco, before they were old enough to even think about starting.

Every day, approximately 4,000 kids between the ages of 12 and 17 smoke their first cigarette. An estimated 1,300 of them will become regular smokers and half of them will ultimately die from their habit, according to the American Lung Association. Ninety percent of daily smokers begin before age 21, and 50% of adults who smoke were regular smokers by their 18th birthday.

Since the program began, it has reached almost 50,000 children. In 2008 alone, “Too Cool to Smoke” was performed for almost 21,000 children.

Marsha Dorsey-Outlaw, the “Too Cool to Smoke” program coordinator, has performed as both Jo Ann and Eric in more than 30 shows.

“This program has been amazingly successful and keeps getting better as a result of the input we’ve been getting from the kids during the question and answer section,” says Marsha Dorsey-Outlaw, program coordinator for the “Too Cool to Smoke” program. “Many of the schools where the show already has been performed repeatedly request it, and several churches and community organizations have made ‘Too Cool to Smoke’ an annual feature at their events.”

Outlaw became the program coordinator almost three years ago because, like Frances, she enjoyed working with kids and thought that the job would be fun. She had no idea, however, that it would change her life.

“Becoming the program coordinator helped me with my personal battle with smoking and helped me to quit for good,” Outlaw says. “Really, the show saved my life because now I’ll never go back to smoking.”

“Too Cool to Smoke” Reaches a Diverse Audience
In 2008, 41% of “Too Cool to Smoke” puppet shows were performed for minority audiences. This is significant because certain minority communities are more likely to smoke than the general population.

Also, black men are about 40% more likely to develop lung cancer than white men, and the rate is about the same in black and white women, according to the American Cancer Society. Lung cancer rates for American Indians and Alaska Natives – both men and women – are significantly higher than they are for white people.

In the Hispanic community, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death among Hispanic men and the second among Hispanic women. Additionally, three out of four leading causes of death for Hispanics have been associated with smoking, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The program isn’t just unique because of how many presentations are given to minorities,” Frances says. “It’s also unique because there are very few tobacco education programs for children in this age group.”

Erick Vicencio, a student at Texas Southern University, has just recently become a puppeteer and loves every minute of it.

Erick Vicencio, a 28-year-old student at Texas Southern University, has been a puppeteer for the program for only a few months. He found out about the program because the president of his class set up an on-campus training. Erick’s most memorable puppet show was at a book fair held at the Hilton Hotel in Houston in February 2009.

“I felt like I did more than just put on a puppet show,” Erick says. “I explained the dangers of smoking, and I think the visuals of the props and puppets really helped. I was talking to them in Spanish, and they were amazed with the facts I told them, especially about all the chemicals that are in cigarettes. Even the parents were asking questions!”

Puppets Act Out Upbeat, Educational Script
The puppet show places two lead characters, 14-year-olds Joanne Spinoza and Eric Van Aart, in the food court at a local mall. When Joanne is bothered by cigarette smoke from a nearby smoker, it starts a discussion with her friend Eric about the negative effects of tobacco.

Joanne Spinoza and Eric Van Aart, the show’s lead characters, spend time together off-set discussing the dangers of tobacco.

“Too Cool to Smoke” has a lively and upbeat script that creates an environment of open communication for children in the audience. Each performance includes a question-and- answer period during which members of the audience can ask questions directly to the puppet characters, who address some common myths and misunderstandings about tobacco use.

The “Too Cool to Smoke” puppet show is made possible through “Kids on the Block,” a program that began in 1977 to address issues such as disabilities, medical differences and substance abuse. “Kids on the Block” programs exist in 50 states and more than 30 countries.

Looking Forward
Outlaw’s vision for the future of “Too Cool to Smoke” is to expand the program to reach even more kids by creating satellite puppeteer troupes in outlying areas beyond Houston. Outlaw also is negotiating with administrators at a few local high schools and colleges with internship programs to make training and working as a “Too Cool to Smoke” puppeteer one of students’ internship options.

The puppet show now has a Facebook page and is inviting other Facebook members to join. 

“Driving traffic to the Facebook page is important because, as strong as the program is, there is always a need for individuals who want to be trained to perform the show,” Outlaw says. 

Puppeteers can earn school credit and $50 a performance.

“I think this program has a personal meaning for every volunteer, regardless of why they decided to become a part of it,” Outlaw says. “They get to meet people from different cultures and learn how to help others change their definition of living well. They get to teach kids how to say to each other and adults, ‘Hey! I have the right to breathe clean air. And so do you.’”

Are you located in Houston and interested in requesting a puppet show performance or getting more information on becoming a puppeteer? Visit the “Too Cool to Smoke” site, or contact Marsha Dorsey-Outlaw at 713-792-8090 or mdoutlaw@mdanderson.org.

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