Fort Bliss, Texas -- Since the start of current combat operations in 2001, deployments have become all too common for many military families. While it may be easy at times to explain to adults that duty calls them away for an extended period, it can be very complicated to convey that message to children.
Through a partnership with the Department of Defense and Military OneSource, Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization behind Sesame Street, aims to help parents and children overcome this communication obstacle with a program called "Talk, Listen, Connect," a bilingual educational outreach initiative designed for military families and their young children to share.
"Most people know Sesame Street as the television show that has run for over 40 years," said Lynn Chwatsky, vice president, outreach initiatives and partnerships at Sesame Workshop. "We are also an educational outreach group. We identify the needs in our target audience with our brand, and we address that need."
The partnership began in 2005 when it was brought to the attention of Sesame Workshop that there were almost a million previous and current preschool-aged children impacted by ongoing deployments. With those deployments, it brought up many complicated issues.
"We try to help parents find the right words to explain to their children what is going on," said Chwatsky. "We help kids identify with a character that they know and love."
The series begins with the Muppet Elmo as his father is ready to leave for an extended period. Through the help of his family and friends on Sesame Street, Elmo learns how to deal with this. He learns that he can keep in touch with his father through letters, pictures and even the internet.
Elmo also learns how to deal with the feelings he has of his father leaving. Children, in turn, learn that they do not have to feel ashamed for having those same feelings.
"Our series has shown tremendous improvements in both the children and adults after seeing it," said Chwatsky. "We have received feedback from teachers, parents and senior military officials. Here at Sesame Workshop, we know Muppets and children, but we do not know the issues that impact these children. We have been advised from top professionals who work in these areas that guide us in what the content should be."
Those issues do not just stop at deployment. They include reintegration during redeployment, when a parent comes back injured (titled "Changes") and even death.
"Our resources have shown to be very impactful, not only for children, but for adults as well," said Chwatsky. "Children do not go through these events alone. They will always have an adult in their life dealing with the very same issues."
The impact from the series is not only felt from the military families, but the performers as well. Carmen Osbahr-Vertiz, the Muppeteer behind Rosita knows this firsthand.
In another part of the series, Rosita, a bilingual Muppet, has to deal with her father returning in a wheelchair after being injured. While she loves her father, she has difficulty dealing with the fact that they can no longer do some of the same things they used to do together, such as kick a ball or even dance.
"For me as a performer, when I read the script for 'Changes,' I was devastated," said Osbahr-Vertiz. "Just thinking that there are little ones who are suffering when their parents come home changed broke my heart. This suddenly became real."
Dealing with the realness that affects so many families is what has driven Talk, Listen, Connect to become one of Sesame Street's most successful programs to date.
"We realized how important this was for all of the military," said Osbahr-Vertiz. "It started as something we do and then it became personal. It has completely changed my life. These are the bravest, most incredible families I have ever seen in my life."
With the removal of American forces from Iraq, Sesame Street does not intend to cancel the program.
"Our nation is still at war," said Chwatsky. "With all of the changes currently ongoing in the military there will always be a need for us to see how we can continue to best serve our military, veterans and their families. Our focus will shift as it needs to."
Resources are available for parents consist of a bilingual (English/Spanish) multimedia kit with DVDs starring Muppets from Sesame Street, print materials and American Greeting postcards featuring Sesame Street characters for parents and their children to stay connected. The kit materials are available free online at http://www.sesameworkshop.org/tlc, or on the Military Families Near and Far website at http://www.familiesnearandfar.org.