On Patrol

Until every one comes home | The Magazine of the USO

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Since November 10, 1969, Sesame Street and the Muppets that live there have helped preschoolers get a jump on learning their letters, numbers, and other important life lessons—like always say please and thank you.

A soldier helps his little girl reach out to touch Elmo during the Sesame Street / USO Experience. Courtesy photoA soldier helps his little girl reach out to touch Elmo during the Sesame Street / USO Experience. Courtesy photoToday, more than 40 years later, Count von Count still—well—counts but the life lessons have expanded to address things like nutrition. Just ask Cookie Monster who used to gobble the sweet treats with abandon. Now he has learned—as have his young fans—that cookies are a “sometimes” food.

While Sesame Street may be best known for broadening children’s cognitive development, Sesame Workshop—the nonprofit organization behind Sesame Street—has done a great deal of work on health issues, as well as social and emotional learning, said Gary E. Knell, president and CEO of Sesame Workshop.

“Those three cornerstones of early childhood education—social and emotional learning, cognitive development, and health education—are the keys to growing up great,” Knell said. “As part of that, we’ve always had a focus on tough issues that young children and their families face.”

That was especially true when Sesame Workshop turned its focus toward military children in 2006. 

Frequent, and often lengthy, deployments were only half the picture. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ramped up more and more military parents were coming home with injuries that were often hard for young children to understand. Then there were the invisible wounds of war—Daddy or Mommy may look the same, but something was different. The worst challenge a young military child could face, however, was a parent not coming home at all.

What Sesame learned through its research was that the use of Sesame Street Muppets—surrounded by important adult conversations about how to cope with these tough situations—has been a very successful formula for giving parents coping skills, Knell said.

A Marine officer interacts with his son during the Sesame Street / USO experience. Courtesy photo.A Marine officer interacts with his son during the Sesame Street / USO experience. Courtesy photo.“It’s been a bit of a natural transition from the core of Sesame Street to now focus on this targeted population who have specific needs that we could address through our characters,” he said.

The result was the bilingual, multi-phase, multi-media Talk, Listen, Connect initiative. The first set of resources was released in 2006 and addressed the topic of deployments. The second phase dealt with homecomings and physical or psychological changes, and the third phase, When Families Grieve, has helped children and parents cope with the grief that comes with losing a loved one.

In addition to these tangible resources, Sesame and the USO teamed up in 2008 to take the show on the road—literally.

The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families, a live half-hour show offering support combined with resources for military families with young children, has already completed four tours of U.S. military bases around the world. Each of these tours focused on helping children cope with deployment.

And the partnership has only grown since the first tour. Already the Muppets have logged more than 61,000 miles and performed more than 300 shows for 200,000 troops and military families, Knell said.

That doesn’t include the current tour, which recently kicked off in Alaska and set Elmo and his friends on the path to perform 162 shows at 58 military installations in 11 countries, Knell said. It will wrap up in Spain in early November.

Cookie Monster teaches children that cookies are a "sometimes food." Courtesy photoCookie Monster teaches children that cookies are a "sometimes food." Courtesy photo“It’s what we call Phase V of the Sesame Street/USO Experience,” he said. “It’s really going to be about relocation as the main focus, which many military families have to deal with—in fact, all military families.”

As excited as Knell is about his furry charges visiting with all those military children, USO President Sloan Gibson is just as enthusiastic about the USO’s continued partnership with Sesame.

“The impact the Sesame Street/USO Experience has had on our military community is incredible,” he said. “The shows do more than entertain. They lift spirits, and provide vital tools that make it easier for military families to cope.”

While this Sesame Street/USO Experience will offer the same support and resources, it also offers a twist in the form of a Muppet named Katie.

“She’s a young girl Muppet, obviously, who tries to reassure the other kids about how to make friends in new places, but also deals with the emotional issues that come with the territory—like sadness, fear, uncertainty, and relief,” Knell said. “I think it’s really about resiliency and resiliency skills for these families.”

Knell describes Katie, 6, as human in appearance as opposed to a monster Muppet like Elmo or Cookie Monster. Her dad is in the military so she knows his job is important, but she’s a little nervous about her family’s upcoming move to a new military base.

“My dad’s being reassigned to a new base, so we have to move. Again,” she said. “It seems like this happens a lot—just when we feel settled down in one place, it’s time to move again.”

She’s nervous about the move because she likes her house and her school. “And I love my friends,” she said. But she knows it will be OK because her family will be there and she’ll make new friends.

“I’ve made some great friends living here! Elmo, Grover, Cookie Monster, Rosita—they’re all from over on Sesame Street—they’re about the greatest friends a kid could have. And even though they’re sad I’m moving away, they make me feel so much better about it.

“They cheer me up when I’m feeling blue and they promise to keep in touch!” she added. “I know I’ll always have my Sesame Street friends!”

The Sesame Street Muppets help children cope with stresses of military life, such as moving and having parents absent from the home for extended periods. Courtesy photoThe Sesame Street Muppets help children cope with stresses of military life, such as moving and having parents absent from the home for extended periods. Courtesy photoShe also knows that by sharing how she feels and how her Sesame Street friends are helping her deal with the big move that she can help other kids get through it, too.

“It helps when you know that you’re not alone in the way you feel!” she said. “And it REALLY helps to see that there are others who are going through the same thing and they’re doing alright!”

While Katie’s situation is very common for military kids, it doesn’t make it any easier, Knell said.

“I think for a little kid it’s about new schools, new caregivers, new churches, new neighborhoods, and new friends,” he said. “I think this is just kind of giving them reassurance that things are going to be OK.

“This is part of life—and part of military life for sure—and many, many, many kids have gone through it and they’ll be fine,” he added. “They’ll find new friends and they’ll find happiness in a new neighborhood.”

The fact that this tour is the biggest is a positive reflection on the experience to date, Knell said, recalling the shows he’s attended.

“Seeing the reaction of the kids and families, it’s an amazing experience,” he said. “I remember one dad saying, ‘Thank you for making today a special moment for my family.’ Each of us have stories about how the Sesame Street characters have brought some joy and normalcy to kids who are in some pretty stressful situations … [and have made] the Sesame Street/USO Experience part of the solution to help them cope.

“That is directly on target for our mission,” he said.

To learn more about Sesame Workshop’s Talk, Listen, Connect initiative please visit www.sesameworkshop.org/initiatives/emotion. For Sesame Street/USO Experience tour dates, see the schedule at www.sesameworkshop.org/initiatives/emotion/uso.

“Sesame Workshop”®, “Sesame Street”®, and associated characters, trademarks, and design elements are owned and licensed by Sesame Workshop. © 2009 Sesame Workshop.  All Rights Reserved.

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Samantha L. Quigley is the editor in chief of ON★PATROL.