Barbara Aiello needed to fall in love again.
She'd been jilted. Cut off from a commitment and legally separated from her offspring of 15 years.
After a business partnership soured last winter, Ms. Aiello was forced to sell her interest in the Kids on the Block, a Columbia company she founded to develop, make and sell a troupe of child-size puppets to help real children deal with real-life problems, such as disease and disability.
Ms. Aiello was crushed. She had nurtured more than 40 puppets and sold thousands of them to schools and organizations that performed her scripts and spread her message.
"The Kids on the Block were my identity," she says. "I created them."
But now, encouraged by friends and family, Barbara Aiello is doting on a new generation of puppets -- the Next Door Neighbors. The "neighbors" are not the new Kids on the Block. They're adults and teens who learn to deal with social instead of physical ailments -- violence, drugs, troubled families and isolation.
"Puppetry in and of itself is a powerful tool for all ages. It's a good vehicle for social issues," opening people up to situations they can identify with, Ms. Aiello said.
It's also a comeback for Ms. Aiello, who relinquished all rights to her old puppets and scripts when her partnership broke up. She feared she would be out of puppetry forever, but friends urged her to get back into the game.
"A number of people who knew me through my puppets really kicked me in the pants," she said.
Since the buyout agreement with her former partner did not contain a "no compete" clause, the one-time schoolteacher took her profits from the sale and an idea planted by her daughter and formed Barbara Aiello and Associates, Educational Consulting Services.
She converted the basement of her rural Westminster home to an office and set to work making "a puppet I could fall in love with all over again."
Helping her was Carroll County designer Teresa Warren.
With Ms. Aiello's experience, Ms. Warren's expertise and suggestions from Kids on the Block fans, the two women created the "Neighbors."
Ms. Warren and three seamstresses make the puppets, which (( are 3 1/2 to 4 feet tall.
Ms. Aiello is not involved in making the puppets as she was with the Kids on the Block.
The "neighbors" quickly caught the attention of some day campers one recent afternoon at the Towson YMCA. The youngsters, squirming and wondering before the performance if it was "a long show," were soon attentive and responsive.
Helen Oakley, an elderly puppet who is the lead "neighbor," asked the youngsters for help in settling a dispute they had just witnessed in the McCord puppet family.
Hands quickly shot up.
"Talk nicely to each other," said one child.
"Ignore each other," said another.
"Put up your stuff so your brother doesn't get it," suggested a third.
"Apologize," offered another.
Each time Helen asked for help, she got more hands than she could recognize.
"We always get this kind of response," said Adele Asaro, one of two puppeteers who worked with Ms. Aiello at the Kids on the Block and has rejoined her.
Ms. Asaro, who brings 11-year-old Sam to life, adds: "They [the children] really talk about a lot of important things. The puppets are wonderful . . . for communicating. I believe I make a difference."
The "neighbor" programs follow a similar format to the Kids on the Block performances. They're 40 minutes long, geared for anyone 8 years old or older and include opportunities for the audience to get involved.
"When a hand goes up, a barrier comes down," Ms. Aiello said.
Ms. Aiello can identify with some of the subjects her puppets discuss. They grew out of her own family difficulties, she said.
At dinner one night, Ms. Aiello's 14-year-old daughter, Rosanna, talked about the problems her family faced after her mother and stepfather (Ms. Aiello's husband, Richard Dolph, was marketing director of the Kids on the Block) sold the old puppet business.
From that discussion came the idea for puppets who deal with family problems. The scripts follow three themes: basic family issues, such as self-esteem and conflict resolution; alternatives to violence, and protecting the environment.
Some themes are common to all families, such as talking and listening to each other. Some themes address diversity -- racial and ethnic ties, traditions and myths. But permeating all the scripts is the idea that "we can't isolate ourselves," Ms. Aiello said.
Joining Helen are two puppet families, the McCords, who are white, and the Tylers, who are black. Also in the puppet cast is Franceene Foster, a teen who asks Helen to help her deal with her crack-addicted mother.
The puppets and their programs are based in reality. "They are not composites; that takes the real edge away," she said.
Ms. Aiello and her research assistant and fellow puppeteer, Cheryl Leonard, spend months developing scripts.
They begin by interviewing not only experts, but also the people the puppets will portray. For the programs on violence and family values, they talked with young people in Baltimore and Washington and their suburbs.
Ms. Aiello wants to sell the puppets and the programs to school systems, community organizations and other groups that can use them to teach the messages and behavior the puppets convey. With scripts, guidebooks and follow-up activities, the puppets cost from $2,400 to $3,400 a set, she says.
The fee includes training sessions for those who will be making the puppets come to life.
Groups that can't afford to buy puppets can contract with Ms. Aiello's company for performances. This summer, the Next Door Neighbors have been performing at the Smithsonian Institution's Discovery Theater as part of an exhibit sponsored by the American Psychological Association.
Ms. Aiello and her husband are just beginning to market the Next Door Neighbors.
"We know we're on to something," she said.