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Lessons for young children about strangers and safety

HOOKSETT - Parents often struggle with how to help their children understand how to be safe, particularly when it comes to strangers, and the anxiety is compounded when a community learns of an apparent threat as Hooksett did last month when a strange man was reported approaching children.

A Nashua organization held an event at the Underhill School Friday to help students, parents, and educators with these concerns, though a somewhat unorthodox messenger: a "lil" iguana.

The Lil Iguana Child Safety Foundation, founded by Jim Tomaszewski Sr. and headquartered in Nashua, is a non-profit group that aims to protect children from predatory adults through educational programs and information for parents and educators.

Its live programs, featuring Tomaszewski's children, teaches children safety through a combination of song, audience participation, and lessons that go beyond the platitudes of "don't talk to strangers," and giving the children concrete examples of what to do and not to do in difficult situations. Failing all else, the kids are to remember to "run, run, yell and tell."

It may be a timely lesson. Hooksett parents and children reported a series of incidents to police in February where a strange man was approaching children in his minivan while they were on their way home from school, attempting to get them into the vehicle. No suspect was ever identified or found.

Lil Iguana contacted the Hooksett Police Department after hearing about the incident, and the department contacted the school to schedule the event.

"It was important to us that this show could be," said Tomaszewski. "They need it."

Several months ago, the group performed at the school which had been attended by 11-year-old Celina Cass, who was murdered in 2011. No arrests have yet been made in that case.

"The principal called us and said 'our children don't even want to go outside, they don't feel safe anymore,'" said Tomaszewski. "So we drove five hours up, did a show for them, and made sure that every kid got a video. That's so tragic, losing a classmate to something so horrific."

Educators at the Underhill School agreed that the program was sorely needed. Raylene St. Pierre, the vice principal, recounted a conversation she had with a PTA member after the February incidents. "She asked her son, 'if somebody came up to you and they said 'I have candy in my car,' would you go into his car? And he said he would."

Of particular importance, St. Pierre noted, is the program's ability to explain safety lessons to children that appear to contradict other lessons in their life, such as respect and obedience to elders.

"I think kids really need to learn that it's OK to be assertive," she said.

Lil Iguana has performed across Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey and Florida, and offers in-classroom programs, educational DVDs and CDs, and soon, a smart phone app allowing parents to send pictures to police should their children go missing."

Tomaszewski hopes to see a chapter of Lil Iguana in every state in the country, along with collaborations and grant work with theater programs in every state. Groups in seven countries, encompassing most of the English-speaking world including Canada, Australia, Ireland, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, as well as Singapore, have also expressed interest opening up a Lil Iguana program within their borders.

Tomaszewski appears most heartened by the part he and his group have played in protecting children, the first of which he says occurred about 16 years ago. At a child care facility where the group had performed, a 3-year-old child was later sexually abused by an older boy, who said that if he told anyone, his parents would be taken away from him and he would be killed.

His mother noticed that he was acting strangely, and took him to a doctor, who attributed the behavior to "growing pains." But the child later said that the doctor was wrong, and that Lil Iguana had to be called because he would protect him. An investigation led to the identification and removal of the abuser and counseling for both, Tomaszewski said.

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