WASHINGTON – Joanna Lopez,29,says it's never easy when her husband,Ernesto,is deployed overseas for Army service.
The first time he was deployed,Lopez's three children,now ages 10 years,6 years and 4 months,who live at Fort Bragg,N.C.,didn't understand how long their father was going to be away. They expected him to be home after a few days or weeks,she said.
“It was hard,” she said. “I didn't know what to expect,or what the kids were going to ask me.”
She turned to other military families for ideas about talking to her children,which she shared in “Talk,Listen,Connect,” a Sesame Street film for families with deployed service members.
The film,produced by Sesame Workshop,a nonprofit organization that produces educational media,features the personal experiences of military families and the story of the popular red Muppet Elmo,whose father is about to be deployed overseas.
Lopez said the film has helped her cope with her husband's third deployment.
“Now I'm more prepared,” she said.
The film is distributed in a kit for military families with preschoolers.
“The materials themselves filled a very important gap in the literature and tools for military families,” said Leslye Arsht,deputy under secretary of defense for military community and family policy.
Arsht said the Department of Defense didn't have much support for preschool children and their parents,and the department recognized the need to have another organization help.
“There can be no more powerful voice of support than Elmo,” Arsht said. “His voice is a universal support.”
The video begins on Sesame Street with Elmo and his father,who is carrying a duffle bag,ready to begin deployment.
“Daddy's got to go away for lots and lots of days,right?” Elmo says,sadly.
“Can Elmo go with daddy?” the red Muppet asks,suddenly excited and hopeful.
“Oh well,I sure wish you could,son,but daddy's got to go do grown-up work. I need to go help some people. It's a very important job,and it's just something I have to do,” Elmo's dad tells him.
The story shows Elmo and his father exchanging personal items to help remember each other,Elmo and his mother reading books and marking off days on the calendar and a jubilant homecoming,complete with the initial hesitance and shyness a young child might have after not seeing a parent for a long time.
The story ends with a song about being proud,in which Elmo and his father sing,”I try my very best with everything I do/ To make you just as proud of me as I am proud of you.”
“Part of the reason this is so important is because children trust these characters so very,very much,” said Patricia de Stacy Harrison,president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. “We have an opportunity to maybe make them feel a little bit better about their situation,that their world isn't falling apart.”
The kit also includes a section for parents in which military parents and their spouses share ideas for activities for preschoolers and ways for grownups to cope themselves. The kit suggests letters,phone and Webcam conversations (“long-distance hugs”),pillows with pictures of parents in uniform,prepared videos of the parent who is going to be away and a strong support system of friends and family.
The video addresses difficulties parents face when they return after deployment. One father said it was hard to accept that his children had become accustomed to turning to their mother with questions or for comfort.
“It was hard to swallow. I wasn't No. 1 in the skinned-knee department,” he said.
Harrison said the filmmakers used suggestions from military families in focus groups when scripting the film.
“It really draws on the actual experience of military families,” Harrison said. “It's not rhetoric.”
Gary Knell,president of the Sesame Workshop,said the project was inspired by “the emotional toll that the conflicts of deployment overseas has on families.”
“We learned that if a soldier is deployed,a whole family is deployed,” Knell said.
Shelley MacDermid,director of the Center for Families and co-director of the Military Family Research Institute,said that young children are “deeply attuned” to their parents' feelings and that helping parents cope with deployment will,in turn,help their children.
Arsht said the video was already becoming a popular resource for military families.
“It's sort of a constant they can turn to when they need something a little extra to give them comfort and support,” she said.
For more information,visit these Web sites:
Downloadable video and other resources for families during military deployment
Toolkits for parents and teachers,divided by children's ages and needs
New York University Child Study Center
Studies about the effects of war on children,a parents' guide to talking to children about war
Zero to Three
Organization serving developing children,including those in military families