Kaia Block Shepard of Richmond is a lucky little girl.
Her dad, Darren Shepard, is a marriage and family therapist intern. Her mom, Karen Block, is the former director of the Children's Theater program at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. She's the center of their world and the light of their lives.
And to top it off, Kaia, who is 20 months old, has a whole slew of surrogate big sisters who adore her. They're the kids who were in the program when her mom was running it. Now they're her babysitters.
I talked with five of them: Katie Roy, a sophomore at Merritt College; Alyssa Houston, a freshman at the University of Hawaii; and the Love sisters – Ana, a junior at Cal Poly; Alli, a senior at Oakland Tech; and Katie, a sophomore at Oakland Tech. And they all love Kaia to pieces.
"I have a whole album of pictures of her on my phone that I show to people all the time because she's so cute," says Alyssa. "She's just a little ball of joy."
And Kaia returns the sentiment. When Alyssa was back home over Christmas break, Karen drove Kaia to Fairyland for a reunion, and Kaia kept chanting, "Alyssa! Alyssa! Alyssa!" all the way to the park.
The girls – now young women – are also grateful to Fairyland, especially the Children's Theater program, for the difference it made in their lives.
"So much of what I am today goes back to Fairyland," says Ana. "It gave me the confidence to be who I am."
"It allowed me to imagine and believe, and without that I would not have the motivation I now have to go into teaching," says Katie Roy.
Every year, Fairyland chooses 30 kids ages 8 to 10, both boys and girls, for the Children's Theater program.
They perform fairy tales at Fairyland's Aesop's Playhouse, greet visitors to the park ("Hi. I'm Snow White. Welcome to Children's Fairyland.") and serve as Fairyland's ambassadors to the outside world by marching in the Oakland Holiday Parade and the Piedmont July 4th Parade.
"They always warned us to watch our step when we walked behind the horses," recalls Katie Love.
"But my favorite thing was the jobs you got to do between rehearsals and on your lunch breaks," says Allyssa. "Some of us helped feed the animals in the Corral, some of us painted flowers on the little kids' faces, and some of us volunteered at the puppet shows to make sure the little kids didn't cross the Magic Pink Line in front of the stage."
"We told them that if they got too close, the puppets would get scared and run off the stage, but the real reason was if they got any closer they'd be able to see the strings."
And that, to me, is the heart of the Children's Theater program: Big kids being nice to little kids.
"We just treated them the way Karen treated us," says Alli.
Fairyland will hold auditions for this year's Children's Theater program on Jan. 26 and 27. You can register online at www.fairyland.org, and call 510-452-2259 for more information.
Your child will learn a lot of performing skills. But more importantly, he or she will be entering a culture where it's cool to be kind.