“How do I overcome my social anxiety?” asks a young TikToker, typing away in the chat section of a live video.
Shortly after, dozens of comments roll in containing similar questions.
“How can I get through school?”
“How do I learn to forgive a bad parent?”
“How should I come out to my dad if he’s homophobic?”
These real-life questions can be difficult to ask, even to close friends and family. That’s why Brad Laurvick, pastor of Highlands United Methodist Church, and a member of the Denver School Board wanted to creatively help answer them by building a community through friendly-faced puppets.
Heavily inspired by the beloved man in the red sweater, Brad says that “Fred Rogers was a huge part of my life as a child. I thought Mr. Rogers was talking to me and only me. And, he was a clergy person, but that never defined him in a way that limited him from people.”
Taking inspiration from Mr. Rogers, Brad wanted to provide community, connection, and support for as many people as possible, regardless of religious beliefs. As Brad says, “It’s not about me. Although the channel is called @Bradandthepuppets, you barely see me. It’s about the conversations the puppets are having with people.”
The team consists of Brad and five puppets–Aspen the Frog (they/them), Petey the Penguin (He/They), Cameron the Camel (He/Him), Curious Carl (He/Him), and Lambert the Lamb (He/Him). Brad controls all puppets, using his expertise from professional puppetry classes and core knowledge from making paper-bag puppets in elementary school.
As a church pastor, Brad has worked with puppets for a long time, putting on fun shows for the congregation for special events. During the first Christmastime of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brad decided to put on a virtual “Christmas Puppet Spectacular” inspired by the Muppet Family Christmas episode from 1987. Though he had never really used the platform, Brad hopped on TikTok and made a few puppet videos to help promote the spectacular.
“I had no idea what I was doing. My videos were a minute long and really not engaging. I didn’t know how to TikTok.” says Brad, who now has over 160K people following @Bradandthepuppets.
After posting a few TikToks to promote the church’s puppet shows, Brad made a TikTok with Aspen the Frog, emphasizing the importance of personal pronouns. The video resonated with many people, drawing in the most attention the channel had seen thus far. Then, @Brandandthepuppets on TikTok became the “You Matter Zone” branded with the purpose of encouraging and validating others.
“It wasn’t about finding an audience and pandering to them. The idea was to talk about the things that matter to me, really focus on those, and hope that it will attract the people who are looking for it,” says Brad. What matters to him is mental health, self-acceptance, and community building, and as it turns out, thousands of TikTokers have found acceptance in the You Matter Zone that they may not have been able to find elsewhere.
“I wanted the puppets to reflect the people of the community,” says Brad, which is why each puppet has a unique purpose, and a specific identity. He says that “one of the beautiful things about puppets is that I get to express a lot of different kinds of personalities and presence. I think there are folks out there that connect with different puppets for different reasons.”
Take Aspen the Frog (they/them), for example. Aspen’s main job is to invite others to not only feel accepted in the You Matter Zone, but in all of life. He was intentionally given they/them pronouns, as Brad wanted the space to represent non-binary friends in the community. Aspen holds many live videos on TikTok, which draw in thousands of viewers.
Real-life, difficult questions often come up during these live videos. In fact, the question from one user about how they should come out to their dad was asked during this Q&A. Aspen responded with, “My friend, first let me thank you for sharing this part of who you are with me. You’ve chosen to come out to us with this question, and I see that and honor that. The two most important things I can say about this question: number one, do not come out if it risks your physical, mental, or emotional safety. Number two: you do not owe your dad coming out. In fact, you don’t owe anyone coming out. So please, only come out if it’s safe and if you choose to do so.” Aspen then gave tips for coming out to a resistant parent, suggesting the viewer lead the conversation with their feelings instead of facts, and allow their dad time and space to respond.
Aspen asked, “do we have anyone else here who has also come out to their parents? If so, let our friend know in the comments.” Suddenly, hundreds of responses started popping up in the comment section, which prompted Aspen to say, “See, you’re not alone!”
The other puppets have unique roles as well. Cameron the Camel is the old soul of the bunch. His specialty is teaching others the importance of boundaries. Petey the Penguin is all about finding adventure, with a side of relaxation and self-care. The eccentric penguin turns wisdom into song lyrics, and viewers always wonder what Petey will come up with next. Carl is the ever-curious one, always ready to share fun facts in the You Matter Zone. And last but certainly not least, Lambert the Lamb is the channel’s comic relief, always posting funny singing or dancing videos because, as the puppets always say, “Life can be a LOT!”
Brad mentioned that sometimes, devastatingly, a user will reach out with implications of hurting themselves or ending their life. Brad takes these comments seriously and cares deeply about helping the people who send them. He immediately shares crisis resources with them, follows their account, and intentionally follows up to check in on them and ask if they have found access to those resources.
Since the You Matter Zone has become such a designated spot to find support, Brad has even started working with TikTok to increase the awareness of users’ mental health. The corporation allows him to “flag and tag” folks who need to be followed up with crisis resources. TikTok will then reach out to those users and provide them with additional support according to their needs.
Given Brad’s background as a pastor, many people wonder if the You Matter Zone has religious motivations. According to Brad, “The key piece for me when I came up with the You Matter Zone is that I recognize that there could be so much religious trauma and baggage that is sadly well-earned in people’s lives.” Though Highlands United fully supports @Bradandthepuppets, he wanted to make the channel completely separate from his “day job” as a pastor.
“There are plenty of pastors on TikTok. There are tons of them. Liberal ones, conservative ones, progressive ones, traditionalism ones–all sorts of folks. I didn’t think people needed another pastor on TikTok, even though some of them are doing great work in the space.”
Brad firmly believes that Jesus loves all people. He simply lets that deeply-rooted belief play out in his actions without having to reference anything related to religion. It’s very important to Brad that people don’t think of the puppets as the “church puppets” because he wants the You Matter Zone to feel like a safe space for everyone, where all beliefs and backgrounds are welcome.
The magic continues outside TikTok, as people have even started to make fan art for the fun-loving group of puppets.
The community continues to expand as more people discover the inclusive, supportive platform on TikTok. Check out @Bradandthepuppets and hop on one of the 30 minute live videos; Brad airs them 3-4 times per week. Also, visit the You Matter Zone website and Instagram @Bradandthepuppets to see more fan art, puppet bios, and songs because YOU matter here. You? Yes, you!