by Kathy Cragin
If you grew up watching TV as a child, there is a good chance that you spent some time getting to know Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch as well as
Stacey Gordon and Julia
Grover, Bert and Ernie, and the Cookie Monster. These Sesame Street Muppets taught us our numbers and letters, good manners, how to get along with others, all with an underlying theme of kindness.
Last month, Sesame Street introduced a new character to join our cast of childhood favorites: Julia! Just as each of the characters has different traits that make them unique individuals, Julia has her own unique way of looking at the world: she is a curious 4-year-old with bright red hair who has Autism.
Perhaps, as a fellow Riponite, what you might find even more interesting about the character, Julia, is her puppeteer: Stacey Gordon. Stacey was born and raised here in Ripon. Although she currently resides in Phoenix, her interest in puppets started as a young girl while she was living in Ripon. With the influence of an aunt who gifted her with her first hand-crocheted puppet as well as a grandfather who crafted marionettes, (and her love of Sesame Street, of course!) Stacey was set on the path of becoming a puppeteer.
While in high school, Stacey had the opportunity to create and craft puppets with her mother, as her church, Big Valley Grace Community Church, embraced her idea to have puppet shows as a way to minister on their mission trips to Mexico. Later on, the puppetry program became part of the children’s program in the church itself. When she moved out of state to further her education, she was able to share her gift of puppetry at the church she attended.
At this point in her life, Stacey was introduced to the world of Autism. Her experience with Autistic children is different than anyone else’s experience because, as the phrase goes: “if you’ve met one child with Autism, you’ve met one child with Autism.” Autism presents itself in numerous ways with each child experiencing different traits. Julia’s Autism is Julia’s Autism. She will never be able to represent every trait in every child living with Autism, but she will be able to represent every child who lives with the traits that make them different. Stacey herself has had hands-on experience with severe Autism as she spent 46 hours a week for 3 years working as a habilitator for a child who had severe Autism as well as Epilepsy. She also has had experience with high functioning Autism, as her son was formally diagnosed 6 years ago, when he was 7 years old, with Autism.
Stacey is an amazing Julia, but Julia had her start long before Stacey came into her life. Sesame Street has been developing Julia for 10+ years. The people at Sesame Street who have created, dreamed about, and written for Julia are those whose lives have personally been touched by a family member or friend who has Autism. (If you look on www.SesameStreer.org/autism you will find various resources and books for parents and children to better understand Autism.)
As Stacey pointed out in our interview, there is a good chance that every one of our lives has been touched by someone with Autism, whether we recognize it or not. It’s easy to judge a situation (or even a person) when we don’t know or understand the full story. As Stacey explained, while a situation might not seem like a big deal to one person, it might be a huge deal to another person (as is evident through Julia in her first episode as she deals with loud sirens) and the truth is this: it’s not our job to judge. Every one of us is different, but everyone is amazing. That is Sesame Street’s initiative regarding autism: to “see amazing in all children.”
So how did Stacey Gordon go from being a puppeteer at church to becoming the newest character on Sesame Street? With hard work, determination, great connections, and a fantastic attitude. When Stacey and her husband moved to Arizona (2001-present), she began doing adult puppet shows at the Great Arizona Puppet Theater. In 2005 she did her first gallery art show and also began building puppets for other people. In 2006 she decided to make a business of it and opened a shop on Etsy.com where she is most well known for her finger puppets. (You can find her store at www.puppetpie.com ). In 2015 she moved her business out of her home studio and into the Bragg’s Pie Factory building where Puppet Pie currently resides. Through all of her puppet ventures, she has been active in the puppet community through events such as DragonCon, GenCon, ComicCon, and Puppeteers of America National Festival. During those events she met some awesome puppeteers who would become key players in referring her for the role of Julia. When the audition finally came about, she was recommended by her friends who worked for Sesame Street, because of her experience with Autism as well as her numerous years in the puppetry business.
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Sesame Street and Stacey share a two-fold goal in presenting Julia to the world. First of all, children who have Autism will be able to identify with someone on TV who has Autism just like they do. In real life numbers, 1 out of 68 people is diagnosed with being somewhere on the Autism spectrum. The second part is to de-stigmatize Autism to the neurotypical world. As you watch the Julia episodes, you will notice the other characters learn to understand and embrace Julia and how she does things a little differently. As children see things modeled on TV, they will start to implement those behaviors in their own lives.
If you’d like to learn more about the puppeteer behind Sesame Street’s Julia, you can visit Stacey’s website: www.puppetpie.com or like her Puppet Pie Facebook Page. She also has a fan page on Facebook: www.facebook.cm/staceygordonpuppeteer . Her contact info is firstname.lastname@example.org. She is currently running workshops for all ages from her studio in downtown Phoenix and still creates handmade and custom puppets. She is available to travel for events such as library, school, home school, Girl Scout or theater programs, as well as corporate workshops or conventions.
http://survivingbythegraceofgod.blogspot.com/ ) where she writes with honesty about the real life of a being a wife, mom, and a woman. She is currently working on her first book. You can follow her on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/katcragin/ ) and on Instagram (@katcragin_writes).