In a dark gymnasium on a Marine Corps base in Hawaii,dozens of colorful flashlights bounced up and down,propelled by the little arms of military kids dancing before a stage set with a famous address – 123 Sesame Street.
A blond,blue-eyed boy not even old enough for elementary school,sporting a blue shirt with Elmo’s face,opened his arms wide,demanding a hug from Honker,a purple creature.
When the boy refused to let go,the display of gratitude overwhelmed Honker,a fuzzy character who communicates by honking his orange nose and emitting sounds through his yellow honker-shaped ears.
Honker’s “helper,” the term Sesame Street stage staff prefers to call themselves,Joseph Baez,was crying inside his suit.
“It gave me this whole bigger energy to finish the show and really rock out for that little kid,” said Baez,30. “It was one of the most tender moments I’ve had so far.”
Honker is one of six characters in Sesame Street’s new “Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families,” a touring play written for military children who regularly separate from their deployed parent,relocate and sometimes face the injury or death of a parent. The play has a new character,Katie,a military child getting ready to move.
Today’s military needs are different because it is the first force to be all-volunteer and predominantly married with children. The smaller force means multiple deployments.
“We know military families are enduring the stresses of multiple deployments; we know there are military families that are there as their loved ones come home having suffered and survived wounds,” Sloan Gibson,USO’s president,said.
“What you’re seeing with Sesame Street and USO is two organizations that recognized those challenges and have adapted and changed to try to meet those challenges,” he said.
The tour is part of Sesame Workshop’s Talk,Listen,Connect initiative. The program taps into Sesame Street’s fan base,credibility and multiple media platforms to educate and discuss issues that can be difficult for parents to talk about with their children.
The idea was sparked when Sesame Street’s CEO Gary Knell read a newspaper story about a military family forced to leave their home after defaulting on their mortgage well before the housing crisis began.
“It’s one of those moments I was so angry about,” Knell said. “We’re rhetorically talking about supporting the troops but allowing these kinds of things to happen.”
The driver behind this initiative was the workshop’s passion for helping a “group of kids who were pretty much being ignored in their time of need,” Knell said.
While the general public supports the troops,there aren’t “as many specific actions that the general public could embrace,” Knell said. “This is one of those things that we decided Sesame Street could make a big difference on.”
TLC first launched in August 2006 with a bilingual DVD,“Helping Families During Military Deployment.” Two more DVDs followed,one focusing on the changes military kids may witness their parents go through,including physical and mental injuries,and the other about coping with the death of a parent and the subsequent grieving.
Lisa and Chad Heck,an Army staff sergeant stationed at Fort Myer,Va.,showed the DVDs to their 6-year-old son,Chance,right before Chad’s deployment to Afghanistan in February. Chance became more comfortable asking questions about his father’s deployment after watching the video,which Lisa Heck said was easy to understand and kid-friendly.
“He watched it just like if he was watching a cartoon,” she said. “He actually was understanding what they were talking about and just kind of opened that door for us to talk about it.”
And that is exactly what Knell envisioned.
“You don’t think about Elmo dealing with a soldier who’s an amputee,but we were able to do that in a way that was very sensitive,” Knell said. “And that’s all about the people who produce and work on this show,and their creative genius is really what made this such a success.”
Tammy Pekas,26,originally from Juniata,Neb.,took her son Jenssen,2,and 6-week-old daughter,Rowan,to one of the shows in Anchorage,Alaska.
“Living up here and being so far away from family,it’s nice to have them come up here and bring that,especially in Alaska because we don’t get a lot of things that are down in the lower 48,” she said. “And it’s nice they understood it was for the kids.”
Following its success with the Talk,Listen Connect initiative and the USO tour,Sesame Workshop jumped onboard Michelle Obama and Jill Biden’s Joining Forces campaign to raise awareness and respect for military families.
Obama and Biden kicked off the Columbus,Ohio,show April 14. The tour has 43 stops planned by July 1.
“Everyone can do something to support a military family,” Obama said at the Columbus show. “And everyone can ask themselves,what can I do? How can I give back?”
In addition to the DVD sets and the tour,the program launched a bilingual website,SesameStreetFamilyConnections,a personal social network for families.
The initiative receives funding from a range of donors,including Walmart,Lockheed Martin,American Greetings and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Reach reporter Pninit Danielle Cohen at [email protected] or 202-326-9868
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