DESPITE DIFFERENCES, WE'RE THE SAME.
Maybe the next generation of kids won't stare. Maybe they won't turn away in fear. Maybe they won't laugh.
They know that's a lot of maybes, Carlton and his friends say. But if they don't start here, right now in this Sherman Oaks preschool, they're never going to stop the stares, the fear, and the cruel laughs from people who think they're different.
Just ask Carlton Russell of Burbank, who is a 32-inch little person. Or Phyllis Karp of Northridge, who has only one arm. Or Racquel Decipeda of Sun Valley and Lorri Bernson of Sherman Oaks, who both are blind.
If they can reach the minds and hearts of the two dozen 4- and 5-year-olds in this class at Temple B'nai Hayim Childrens Center, they're reaching the next generation.
Breaking new ground for the generations to come, is the way they put it.
So Carlton and his friends show the kids that little people and the physically disabled aren't any different from anyone else. They just have to do things in a different way.
It's a matter of showing it's OK to laugh with them - just not at them. Showing them it's OK to be friends.
Carlton makes a funny face and screams. The little kids jump. Then they laugh. With him, not at him.
The Burbank actor, who has appeared in more than 35 feature films and television shows, has just finished telling them a story about what it's like to be so small as an adult that you can't see yourself in the mirror when you're brushing your teeth.
The doctors had given him a special medicine to help him grow, Carlton told the kids - and one day, while brushing his teeth, he looked into the mirror and saw someone looking back at him.
So he screamed - just like this. The kids jumped. Then they laughed and relaxed. He's a funny, neat little man, that Carlton.
``You have to get to the children early, before they develop all the biases and fears, and start staring at you like you're different,'' Carlton said later.
``Sure, we look different, but we're just like everybody else, too. That's what these kids have to see and understand now.''
That's how you break new ground for the generations to come.
Lorri Bernson introduces the class to her seeing-eye dog, Nigel, and asks them to put a hand over one eye and make a tiny circle, using a forefinger and a thumb, over the other eye.
``That's how much I can see,'' she says. ``Like Carlton, I had to find ways to do things differently. Nigel has become my eyes when we go outside for a walk.
``He lets me know when there's a car coming or a dangerous step ahead. Let me show you.''
With that, Nigel, a beautiful golden retriever, walks Lorri to the classroom door, stopping whenever there is an obstacle in her way.
The kids clap, for now they understand what it would be like to be blind - you would just have to do some things a little differently, that's all.
``Now I want to introduce my next friend, Phyllis, who is very funny,'' Carlton tells the kids.
``Do you see anything different about me?'' Phyllis Karp says, waving around an empty sleeve that hits her in the face.
``Stop it,'' she says, pretending to be angry. ``Sometimes, it just has a mind of its own.''
The kids laugh, and one of them gives Phyllis an answer. ``You have only one hand,'' he says.
``My arm got sick - but it's OK,'' she says. ``I can still hug. Want to see?''
One by one, Phyllis gives every child in the class a hug, and they understand. You just have to do some things a little differently, that's all.
In a corner of the room, Danielle Salem and Connie Cord watch Carlton and his friends are breaking ground with a new generation of children.
This is the second time that Cord, who organized D.E.E.P - Disabled Enlightened and Enriched Program - has brought Carlton and his friends to this school, and both trips have been huge successes, says Salem, director of education at the children's center.
``The parents were frightened at first last year, afraid to have this program. But the response afterwards from their children was so positive that the parents become enthusiastic about it and wanted it back,'' Salem said.
``They understand that it's important for their children to learn at an early age why people are different and what makes them different, but that we're all also the same - whether we're a little person, blind, or have only one arm.
``It's a shame more schools don't know about it because I have seen no better program in any of the schools that opens the minds of children to something so important,'' she said.
If you're a parent or teacher who would like more information on D.E.E.P, call Connie Cord at (818) 345-7661.
Carlton and his friends are just waiting for the invitation to break more new ground for the generations to come.
(1) Lucas Jackson and fellow preschoolers at Temple B'nai Hayim try to simulate the vision of a partially blind person.
(2 -- 3) Phyllis Karp, left, an arm amputee, and Carlton Russell, above, 32 inches tall, tell how their disabilities affects their lives.
Charlotte Schmid-Maybach/Staff Photographer
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|Publication:||Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)|
|Date:||Oct 27, 2002|
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