By Staff Sgt. Dijon RolleSeptember 29, 2009
MANNHEIM, Germany -- The Benjamin Franklin Village Sports Arena in Mannheim was full of giggles, lots of smiles and squeals as well as its fair share of strollers Sunday as children and their parents hurried in to enjoy the sights and sounds of the Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families.
The performance, also given in Heidelberg, Kaiserslautern and other locations throughout Europe, featured five of some of the best-loved Sesame Street characters singing and dancing to the packed house of tiny and not so tiny fans.
The show is designed to help military children understand what it means when their moms and dads deploy and how to handle the changes that can come with such a major transition. The tour itself is part of Sesame Street's "Talk, Listen, Connect" initiative for military families.
One of those tiny fans giggling and smiling was 22-month old Kaylah Garner. Her parents - Staff Sgt. James Garner, 44th Expeditionary Signal Battalion, and Staff Sgt. Khadijah Garner, 28th Transportation Battalion - just returned from separate deployments earlier this year. James deployed to Iraq shortly after his daughter's birth, and he recalls what it was like to leave her and his wife behind so soon afterwards. "It was hard. It was very hard," he said.
"When I left Kaylah, she was 5 days old, and when I returned, she was a year and some change," he said. "It was very hard, but this is giving us a chance to do nice things with her and give her fond memories."
He added that Elmo is Kaylah's favorite character as he and his wife take turns playing with a bright red stuffed Elmo toy, much to Kaylah's delight.
Elmo is also a favorite with 2-year-old Rinoa Willie. She was dressed in a pink and gray Elmo ensemble while perched in her mother's lap waiting for the show to begin.
"She loves Elmo ... she just had a birthday, and when she got Elmo toys, she freaked out. So when we found out they were coming here and we saw the poster for the show in the commissary, she freaked out," Sandra Willie said, laughing.
Willie's husband has been deployed in the past, and she said the Sesame Street performance was a big help for her and her family.
"I think that it's helpful for not just the parents, but really it's helpful for the kids," she said. "I think it helps because sometimes one parent gets stressed out when the other is away and things like that ... with the kids being young, they don't understand what's going on. It helps you to understand from your kid's point of view."
Standing in the midst of this sea of excitement and laughter stood a perfectly calm and smiling Lonnie Cooper. Cooper, the USO tour director, was one of the many different hands involved in bringing the show to Mannheim and so many other military communities. Stories from families like the Garners and Willies are what it's all about for Cooper.
"You see their eyes light up, and you see them really clicking when Grover and Elmo and the other characters talk about Dad or Mom being gone and that it's OK ... to be sad about that, but there are friends and family and things they can do to get through those tough times," Cooper said.
As for the overall response to the tour, Cooper said, "It's been huge. I've gotten more moms and dads coming up to me after the show just saying thank you for being there, and, in fact, I talked to a family last night that had been to one of our shows I think in Ramstein ... and they said that all the way driving home their kid were singing the songs. When they got home, they had a big conversation about their dad, who was just about ready to fly to Afghanistan, and they had a great conversation as a family."
Cooper said they thanked him for being part of starting that family conversation. They told him that when Elmo talks about it, it takes all the pressure off.
"It's not a big serious 'daddy's going away thing,'" Cooper added. "It becomes Elmo talking to you about just a natural thing that happens in their life, and it's really positive."
The 30-minute show sponsored by the United Service Organizations and the VEE Corporation, has already toured bases in the United States and is currently making the rounds through Europe with future dates also scheduled for Alaska, Japan and Korea.
Another set of hands responsible for bringing this show to Mannheim is Geoffrey Larkin, chief of community recreation for Mannheim, who admits putting everything together took a lot of hard work, but it was well worth it.
"We thought that this was a really, really good opportunity for us to get something that would be good for the children and parents in the Mannheim community, especially with so many people leaving and deploying and re-deploying," Larkin said.
In addition to the free show, families were also treated to goodies like DVDs to help parents talk to their children about deployments in the future, USO bandanas and Sesame Street fun lights that the children happily twirled and swung in the air as Elmo, Cookie Monster, Zoe, Rosita and Grover moved and grooved across the stage and even further into their tiny hearts.
For more information on resources to help children deal with deployments, visit www.sesameworkshop.org.
(Editor's Note: Staff Sgt. Dijon Rolle volunteers for the USAG Baden-Wuerttemberg newspaper, the Herald Post)