In the past several years, Elmo and Rosita's families have undergone some scary and confusing changes.

Just like approximately 700,000 preschool-age military children, the loveable monsters of Sesame Street have had their lives turned upside down and must learn how to live in the "new normal."

Elmo's father doesn't actually deploy, but he leaves for a long time to "help" people. It takes Elmo a while, and the assistance of his mother and friends, to adjust. After months of sending Daddy pictures and cards, and saying goodnight to the moon, Elmo finally gets his father back.

But of course things don't go as smoothly as expected, and in another storyline, Elmo has to get used to having his father back. And when he finally does, it's only to learn that Daddy has to go away again.

Meanwhile, Rosita's father, her Papi, has been injured at work and is in a wheelchair. She's devastated and confused, but doesn't want to talk to her parents because she's afraid of upsetting them. She's especially sad that she can't dance with her father anymore. In the end though, she and Papi figure out new ways to play ball and dance together.

Sesame Street's "Talk, Listen, Connect: Deployments, Homecomings, Changes" DVDs are targeted at military families with young children. The programming is designed to help those families communicate better and build understanding about the challenges of multiple deployments, difficult homecomings and changes that come with battlefield injuries.

"Elmo is three and a half," said Lynn Chwatsky, senior director of outreach initiatives and partners at Sesame Street. "How Elmo feels, how he talks, his reactions, are all very typical three-and-a-half-year-old. So why these children can so relate is because he's modeling behavior that they may be going through. Even though we don't talk about Elmo's daddy going to war, his daddy's going away and it does speak to that. So when Elmo gets sad, kids can say, 'Oh wait a second, I get sad.' That's why I think this works so well. Of course, everyone loves Elmo. Also, these were some real, hard emotions these children were going through. We did some research and found out these materials worked. Of course, we immediately heard from people, 'What more can you do for us' We want more.'"

And Sesame gave them more, expanding the series last year after a Purdue University study found more than 80 percent of respondents said the original DVD about deployments was a useful tool, but could have gone further and explained multiple deployments and injuries.

"'Talk, Listen, Connect,' (recognizes) the many complicated issues that military children and families face related to multiple deployments and when parents returned changed in some way, and it's communicated in a way that only Sesame Street can do," said retired Col. Stephen J. Cozza, M.D., a professor of psychiatry and associate director for the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress at the Uniformed Services University, and an advisory-board member for both DVDs.

"They're able to talk about tough topics, but they do it with sensitivity and with clarity. And they also do it at the developmental level that young children understand, using characters that are known and trusted to American kids," he continued.

The storylines from both DVDs emphasize the importance of family and friends, "sticking together" and having pride in each other. There are plenty of ideas for how kids can keep in touch with parents or help a parent who has been injured. Rosita even decorates her father's wheelchair with a family photograph.

The DVDs are also interspersed with clips of real military families talking about their challenges and triumphs, and Leanne Kocsis, an Army wife and mother, said they are among her kids' top picks to watch on car trips.

"I really appreciate it, especially because I grew up on Sesame Street," she said. "So to see now that they're reaching out to military families like this, it really gave it a great perspective and the kids really liked it. There are no other cartoons or other programs that talk to their level like Sesame Street does.

"They could see other children who were going through the same things. In their minds, Elmo and Elmo's friends are kind of like them. They may be furry, but they are still kids. We are National Guard, so we don't have neighbors who are military. I think my son Elijah, who is still in kindergarten, is the only kid in his school who had a deployed father. So they could see this on TV and be like, 'Wow, it's not just me.' And they did appreciate that because no one likes to be an outsider."

In addition, Sesame Street premiered a new primetime special with Queen Latifah, John Mayer and real wounded warriors and their families in April. It allowed viewers to step inside their lives and learn how they've coped with life-altering changes like amputations, post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.

Children talked about what it was like to have their fathers come home different, and parents discussed the steps they took to help their children adjust. Sgt. Sebastian Cila, whose arm was severely injured in Iraq, said during the program that it was important to involve his son through the whole amputation process so there would be no surprises.

"I believe it will help families tremendously. I was thrilled with the project (and) I think they did a great job. It just kind of gives some insight and some behind-the-scenes of what families go through with injuries and disappointments," he said at a special DOD screening of the documentary.

"They did a really nice job portraying the situations that the families are going through," his wife Anna agreed. "It's true to my heart that what we saw today is something good; something really good is going to come out of it."

Kocsis made a date with her two young children to watch the special a couple weeks before her husband was to return from his deployment to Iraq with the National Guard. She popped popcorn and they made a night of it. She said the special helped open a dialogue with her children about what to expect when their father came home.

"I asked them a couple questions to get their minds rolling afterwards and my six-year-old commented how, 'Wow, dads can come back with hurts on the inside. They might be missing an arm or a leg, but I didn't know that he could come home with hurts on the inside.' So he was actually a little bit worried. It started a conversation and that was good because...he didn't know how to ask, 'Is Dad going to be okay when he gets back'' And it was easy for me to say, 'Elijah, I can't know what the future is going to be like, but I have talked to Dad. We have stayed in communication and he's not going to be broken. He's going to be whole. It's just going to take a while for us to reintegrate and feel like a family again.'"

Sesame Street is also working to bring their support to military bases. Last year, they sponsored a "The Sesame Street Experience for Military Families," tour with the United Service Organization, and sent Elmo, Rosita and Grover to more than 40 U.S. installations. It was their first live outreach program in the 40-year history of Sesame Street, and at press time, they were scheduled to take the tour to bases in Europe, Hawaii and Alaska. For tour stops and dates, check the Sesame Web site at

During the tour's launch last year, the monsters sang and danced and talked to military kids about how to keep in touch with deployed parents: read stories, write letters and draw pictures. Rosita suggested singing to each other on the phone or computer.

"I miss my family," cried one child in response to Elmo's question to audience members about whether they felt sad because they missed their mommies or daddies.

"I really liked the show," added Molly McKaig, explaining that she especially liked Elmo, because red is her favorite color and he's "so red."

"How better to ease their feelings for when one of their parents or both parents are gone and just the many, many different ways to cope with it'" said Col. Valerie Ratliff, who brought her adopted niece, Jhendayi Bryant, to help the five-year-old understand why her parents and aunt have to go away. "What better way for them to cope with it than to see their characters, the ones that they're growing up with, to tell them how they should cope and deal with a parent who comes back who didn't leave the same way'"

Sesame Street even created a forum for military families to stay in touch. Sesame launched the 'Family Connections Web site' ( over the summer, which Chwatsky said is similar to Facebook for military families, but safer because it's closed. A parent must set up a profile and invite others to join the circle.

"So you invite your two kids, you include your husband, you probably include your mom, maybe your brother, maybe your child's teacher. You can go on with your child and upload customized art, upload photos, upload some videos and audio and create this wonderful, safe environment that only the people you invited to be part of can be there, and have constant communication, constant sharing of child-generated material. On the flip side, the parent who is away can also communicate back home. All of this is within this wonderful Sesame framework, so a child may upload a piece of art and Elmo may come on and say 'Great job!' It's safe. It's trusted because it's Sesame Street. Also, you can invite Elmo to be part of your family too. It's a continuation of our whole project here of staying connected. We hope to have real success with that," explained Chwatsky.

To help children at child development centers, military hospitals, libraries, family support centers-really anywhere military children congregate-Sesame Street also designed a Sesame room-in-a-box with the help of interior designer Jonathon Adler, that will go to about 35 locations across the military.

"We're working very closely with DOD to identify these 'high-need' places where there are a lot of young children passing through and where these rooms are basically white rooms and a gray carpet," said Chwatsky. "We're providing a Sesame room-in-a-box to basically turn that room into a space kids will love and want to be. So everything from Sesame toys, Sesame furniture, Sesame wall hangings, Sesame books and videos. The whole thing is that it's not hard for them to put together, but with the stuff in this box, wow, they can really transform those rooms."

Sesame Street has also developed special materials for adults, including a magazine to help them better understand what their children might be going through and how to help, such as keeping a routine and finding a balance between telling children what's going on and giving them too much information.

According to Staff Sgt. Ramon Padilla, who was featured in the "Changes" storyline playing with his kids and putting on his prosthetic arm with the help of his three-year-old daughter, Elmo and Rosita have helped Emily and Ramon, two, understand his injuries better.

"Kids pay attention to these cute characters," he said after the release of the second DVD. "I think sometimes they relate to them and they feel, 'Hey, I'm part of his world, he's part of my world,' and it helped them out to just understand more of what's going on in the military lifestyle.

"My youngest daughter, she was actually telling herself every day, 'Daddy's OK. Daddy's OK. He's fine. He's OK.' And then, one time she did ask my wife, 'What happened to Daddy'' And my wife told her, 'He got hurt at work.' When they saw this DVD, they realized and they understood, 'Oh, things happen at work and Daddy got hurt, but he's back and he's doing fine.' It was great that she saw other families going through the same thing and I think it made it a lot easier for the family," said Padilla, who was injured while deployed to Afghanistan with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team.

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16