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Retired teacher, a Brookfield resident, continues to educate as Peppi the Lead Free Clown

Patti Peplinski, dressed as Peppi the Lead Free Clown, talks to a class of students at Brown Street Academy on June 6. Peplinski‘s presentations teach lead safety while entertaining.

Patti Peplinski, dressed as Peppi the Lead Free Clown, talks to a class of students at Brown Street Academy on June 6. Peplinski‘s presentations teach lead safety while entertaining. Photo By Matt Unrau

June 16, 2014

When Peppi the Lead Free Clown walked into the Brown Street Academy on June 6, she was immediately greeted by faculty.

"How are you, Patti?" asked one staff member, as the clown checked into the front office.

"Patti isn't here today," Peppi said with a smile painted across her face. "It's Peppi today."

Patti Peplinski, a Brookfield resident, is a retired early childhood special education teacher from Brown Street Academy, located at 2029 N. 20th Street in Milwaukee. She retired in 2012.

Peplinski studied clowning in college before going into teaching in 1977.

Although she often distributed lead-safety pamphlets to families, Peplinski's advocacy for the cause grew stronger after she had a student who was hospitalized for lead poisoning in 1996.

"As I read up about (lead danger), I was shocked about what we knew about the dangers of lead and when we knew it," Peplinski said. "It was so preventable!"

Lead poisoning prevention

Lead is a strong poison that was often used in paint, plumbing, and dinnerware prior to the late 1970s. Consumption of lead has been proven to harm children's nerves and brains, affecting their mental development.

In a 2013 study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, researchers found children who were exposed to lead were nearly three times more likely to be suspended from school by the fourth grade.

To help promote lead safety, Peplinski built a lead poisoning prevention curriculum for grades K4 to 12 and gave annual lessons to students at Brown Street Academy.

She also dressed up as a clown during Halloween, but "Peppi the Lead Free Clown" wasn't officially born until 2005, during a school safety festival. Peppi combined her lead-free lessons with clown antics to share a message of safety.

Peppi re-visited Brown Street Academy to perform for four classes of students on June 6, prior to a school carnival.

Before waving her color-changing scarf and displaying her self-filling color book, Peppi wanted to look out the classroom window.

"Oh, look how beautiful it is outside!" Peppi said, as she made her way across the classroom. "It's such a great day for a carnival."

She pulled a lollipop from her mouth and set it on the windowsill before looking outside. Then she picked the lollipop back up.

"I still want it," she told the students, "but it's been on the windowsill with old paint. Can I still eat it?"

Students shouted "No!"

"Why not?" Peppi asked.

One by one, students told her the lollipop now had germs and was "gross."

Peppi agreed and went back to her clown bag, pulled out a much larger lollipop, and explained to the class that paint in old buildings often contained lead.

"Fortunately," she said, "this building doesn't have lead paint — but if it did, you'd have to be careful."

Peppi then discussed how to identify lead-based items and asked the students to avoid them.

"My whole emphasis is on prevention," Peplinski said later. "I think the kids really respond to it."

"Students are always excited to see Peppi," said Ava Morris, principal of Brown Street Academy. "She's such a solid entity. She is genuinely concerned about the lack of education in lead safety and offers a message that is both entertaining and educational. To get all that balled up into one is great."

Class clown

Clowning isn't just a hobby for Peplinski, it's a passion.

As a member of the Clowns of Waukesha, Peppi performs at various community events and attends special clowning conventions.

At the 2014 World Clown Association Convention, held in Milwaukee, Peplinski learned that she wasn't just a clown. She was a safety clown.

Safety clowns perform in order to educate about a special cause. In most case, safety clowns are used to demonstrate fire safety, Peplinski said.

"I'd like for my message of 'Look out for lead, stay away from peeling paint' to be as common as 'stop, drop and roll,'" she said.

Peplinski is also a member of the education subcommittee of the Wisconsin Childhood Lead Poisoning Elimination and Implementation and Oversight Committee.

Peppi recently received the "People's Choice" award in an environmental art competition organized by The LEAD Group, an Australia-based organization dedicated to eliminating lead poisoning across the world.

Peppi will appear on the front cover of the organization's Lead-Safe World calendar for 2015.

"Patti's message of lead safety is so relevant and pertinent for students and parents," Morris said. "She is a tradition for Brown Street Academy and we always welcome her back."

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