The Power Behind Puppets
By James Coulter
Whenever Parkland Puppets puts on a performance, whether it’s for preschoolers or nursing home seniors, they’re sure to bring a smile to anyone of any age. After all, who doesn’t like puppets?
An outreach ministry of Parkland Baptist Church in Winter Haven, this puppet team hosts musical performances with colorful puppets and upbeat Christian music, performing at churches, preschools, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, bookstores, community centers, and parks all across the county.
They have hosted shows at The Mission, Citrus Festival, Denton Center, Junior League of Lakeland, and even mission trips in Argentina, Guatemala, and West Virginia.
The church hosts annual performances at Christmas and Halloween; the Halloween performance is extremely popular because it is backlight with glow-in-the-dark puppets, often drawing in crowds of 500 children.
The group does not charge, but rather they accept donations for the ministry-filled performances. The puppeteers are both young and old share a love for entertaining people while sharing the Christian faith. In addition to puppets, the performers use props including signs and instruments.
Many of the puppeteers are children ranging from elementary age to those in high school. Working with young people has proven quite the challenge for the adults, but a rewarding one at that, as they have watched these children grow through the ministry both physically and spiritually.
Elizabeth Heath, 20, has been in the ministry with her mother, Patricia, for 13 years.
As a young girl raised on children’s puppet programs, Heath has always had a desire for puppetry and longed to join her church’s puppet ministry, which she was allowed to do once she turned 10.
As with most amateur puppeteers, she began working with signs before later moving on to instruments and eventually puppets.
Keeping her arms raised over her head while working the puppets has always been her main challenge, but Heath has since gained the upper-body strength to endure longer performances.
She now shares her 13 years of experience with the younger puppeteers, aiding them as they start out in the ministry.
“It’s interesting to see the kids now because many of them remind me about how I was when I first started,” Heath says.
For puppeteers like Jodi Reeves, who has been involved with her daughters, Carly and Casey, the puppet team provides them a family activity that allows them to be involved with Christian ministry.
“It’s a good, creative outlet,” Reeves says. “I may come in here on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. and feel out of it, but when we are done, or after we do a show, I feel good afterwards.”
For others like Dee White, the team has given their family the opportunity to attend church and become introduced to the Christian faith.
White started three years ago with her grandson, Tyler, and later invited her niece, Melissa. Their whole family soon started attending their puppet shows, and later, the church services. They have all since become baptized Christians and full-time church members, with her son, Mike, serving as a deacon.
“I have a whole family who I know are going to heaven because of this ministry,” White says. “There is no prize greater than that.”
Parkland Puppets is the fruit of labor of both Donna and Chuck Doolittle, both of whom have served together in the puppet ministry for 18 years.
Donna Doolittle works as the puppet leader organizing shows and training puppeteers, while her husband, Chuck, works as their soundman and prop maker.
Their endeavor into puppetry began in 1995 at First United Brethren Church in Findlay, Ohio, where Donna Doolittle was originally involved with children’s church.
While flying home from Colorado, Doolittle says she felt divinely compelled to start a puppet ministry. Even though she lacked any prior experience in puppets, she faithfully answered her call.
Doolittle proposed her ministry to the pastor and 15 other church members. Of those 15 individuals, 10 became the founding members of her first puppet team.
Though the first few years were a learning curve for her, Doolittle would perfect her new skills during those five years in Ohio, which would prepare her for when they moved to Florida in 2000.
Doolittle and her husband joined Parkland Baptist Church where they told of their previous ministry experience to Pastor Jim McKinney, who allowed them start their own puppet team there.
Having left behind their old puppet gear in Ohio, they had to start from scratch assembling a new puppet stage and purchasing new puppets.
To purchase their puppets, they held an adoption where church members could select puppets from a catalog, and in exchange for paying for them, name their puppets and receive adoption papers and pictures of them.
The puppet team started with seven puppeteers, and since then, has grown substantially and currently has 20 puppeteers. More than 100 puppeteers have been involved with the ministry since its inception.
The ministry has proven to be of great benefit to the church, not only by drawing people there, but also by presenting them with the faith of the church.
“Donna does a great job leading the puppet ministry,” Pastor McKinney explains. “She really makes it a ministry where it is an outreach to our community, whether it’s with children or with seniors. There is a lot of fun, a lot of laughing, but through that laughter and fun, she shares the message of Jesus Christ that can change people’s lives and really make a difference.”
To create a single 30-minute puppet show, Doolittle requires three months to organize and another six weeks to practice.
Scheduling has always been their greatest concern. Not only do they have to work around church activities to find a convenient time to host shows and practices, but they also have to work around the busy schedules of individual puppeteers.
Managing to work their way around scheduling conflicts has allowed the puppeteers to become more versatile in their craft, as they often have to fill in for their fellow puppeteers.
Working with different people and using their talents and abilities to reach others with the Christian faith has always been the biggest blessings for Doolittle and her husband, who plan on continuing their ministry until either puppeteers stop showing up or God instructs them to create a new ministry.
To have as many people volunteering for her ministry — people that her ministry could not do without — Doolittle considers herself more than blessed.
“People that want to do puppets are unique and very interesting to work with,” Doolittle says. “They’re creative and upbeat people.”
To learn more about Parkland Puppets, visit ParklandBaptistChurchFL.com
To book a performance, contact the Parkland church office at 863-324-6349, or call Donna Doolittle at 863-293-9868.