Katie Polk and her puppet Mr. Mouse. Photos by Jim Laino
It’s Friday morning at the Trinity Lutheran Nursery School in Rocky Point and the excited shouts and laughter of the kids can easily be heard in the parking lot as they urge on a whiskery blue rodent in his never-ending quest for a cheese ball, which the children always seem to spot before he does.
Orchestrating the hilarity is puppeteer Katie Polk, a lifelong Shoreham resident whose joyful exhibitions led by Mr. Mouse and friends — known as Katie’s Puppets — have made a seismic impact on the lives of audiences from Huntington to Wading River. It seems that children, parents, teachers, caregivers and others witnessing the infectious glee of Polk’s performances can’t help but be enchanted by what the puppeteer calls “the power of the giggle.”
Polk professes a firm belief in the adage that “it takes a village” to raise a happy child and, to that end, Katie and Mr. Mouse pull out all the stops to bring “joy, wonder and, most of all, giggles” to those who need it most.
To make the best use of what Polk calls her “gift from God” — the power to make kids laugh — she liberally sprinkles her performance schedule with a whole array of volunteer presentations at venues ranging from the Lighthouse Mission in Patchogue and Bellport; Child Life Program at Stony Brook; Head Start Program in Nassau and Suffolk and Little Flower Children and Family Services in Riverhead.
Michael Attard, a certified child life specialist at Stony Brook’s Long Island Children’s Hospital, said, “For over 10 years Katie has been volunteering her time at our unit with Mr. Mouse, a zany blue character searching for that ever-elusive cheese, who possesses the uncanny ability to reach children at an emotional and developmental level.”
He added, “Polk has contagious enthusiasm but also the sensitivity to know which type of approach works best with each child. She does not perform at the kids but rather has a conversation with them, allowing the children to totally forget their surroundings.”
Young audience members from Trinity Nursery School at Fish Church in Rocky Point.
Susan Cutrone, an administrator working at Head Start in Southhold, said the organization, federally funded and operating on a shoestring budget, is so “grateful to Katie who donates all her time and even teaches the art of puppet making after the show while supplying all materials at her own expense.
Cutrone says you cannot overstate the value of such exposure the children receive, many for the first time, regarding theatre, art and communication. “A majority of the children come from immigrant families where English is not always spoken,” Cutrone said, “but the kids love the show which transcends language” and makes smiles the audience’s common denominator.
Polk says she is fortunate to have grown up in an atmosphere of giving and laughter, where her grandfather’s spontaneous comedy and mother’s impromptu tap dancing brought warmth, comfort and support. She said she’s grateful she can pass on the joy first learned from her “parents, brothers, giggle buddies and friends.”
Claudia Ruggiere of Little Flower Children and Family Services of New York based in Wading River, and Andrea Ryan of the Lighthouse Mission in Bellport, are among the many Long Islanders who have witnessed firsthand Polk’s gifts from the heart.
Ruggiere, who teaches special education, finds it “amazing that the kids, who usually have a limited attention span, sit in rapt attention and respond so enthusiastically to Mr. Mouse, Princess Purple and the rest of the delightful puppets.”
Ryan says the Mission has been blessed with the performances of Katie’s Puppets, which are donated to entertain the children, ages 4 to 12, at its Saturday program. Many of the children are from underprivileged communities, Ryan said, and their young lives are surrounded by violence, drugs and gang activity. “Katie’s wonderful show brings laughter and smiles every time she visits.”
Polk said, “As an artist living my entire life on Long Island, I have been fortunate to have felt such an incredible outpouring of support from so many organizations, communities and individuals that when I think about it I am sometimes left speechless. So I would like to use this forum to say a big thank you as well as encouraging everyone to continue on with joy and laughter.