Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Muppets' Military Mission

It's a Muppet family picnic in the park, but Elmo is sad and confused: His Uncle Jack won't be there, because he's dead, and Elmo can't quite grasp that he's never coming back. For Elmo's moptop cousin Jesse, it's hard to even talk about the loss: Jack was her dad.

The story line may seem highly unusual for "Sesame Street," but when Elmo and friends aren't on their day job being cute, colorful and cuddly, they've taken on another mission: helping children of military families struggling with loss, grief and fear.

With some deep-pocketed sponsors like Wal-Mart, Sesame Workshop has been steadily expanding a program called "Talk, Listen, Connect" aimed at kids of all ages, including the youngest and most vulnerable. More than two million U.S. children have been affected directly by a parent's military wartime deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan; 40% of these children are younger than 5 years old.

According to the Defense Department, in the past 8½ years more than 12,000 military children have experienced the death of a parent. Research shows that even the toll of military deployments is steep; a study last year by the Rand Corp. found that children in military families were more likely to report anxiety than children in the general population, and that the longer a parent had been deployed in the previous three years, the more likely their children were to have difficulties in school and at home.

The Sesame programs offer free books, websites and other resources to cope with every conceivable question and issue that might arise for children, as well as videos that mix familiar Muppet characters with footage of real kids and parents talking about their own experiences. The first two installments, launched between 2006 and 2008, dealt with deployments, redeployments, and parents who come back with a combat-related injury or posttraumatic stress disorder; in one, the Muppet Rosita's father is in a wheelchair.

A new program helps children dealing with the worst-case scenario: a parent who doesn't return at all. Over the past few months, Sesame Workshop has distributed more than one million "When Families Grieve" multimedia kits to support groups and families. The program has received the blessing of top military brass; Adm. Mike Mullen got on stage with Jesse, Rosita and Elmo for a Pentagon screening of a "When Families Grieve" special hosted by CBS's Katie Couric that aired April 14 on PBS.

Gary Knell, president of Sesame Workshop, says the initial inspiration came from a story he read on a train five years ago about a family that lost its home because it fell behind on mortgage payments while the father was deployed in Iraq. "I just was so sick of seeing all these 'support the troops' posters when we were allowing things like this to happen," he says. The needs of military families also struck a chord with Sesame Workshop Executive Vice President Sherrie Westin, whose brother is an Army reserve officer now serving in Afghanistan.

Talking to support groups, Sesame officials learned that military families often had little help in communicating with children about the realities of war. "A lot of military support programs are more for the parents, but kids really relate to Elmo and 'Sesame Street,'" says Heidi Malkowski, who works at McGuire Air Force Base as the secretary to the 305th Medical Group Commander. Before her husband, Air Force Master Sgt. Edward Malkowski, was deployed to Yongsan Air Base in Korea last year, the couple watched the video about deployment with their three boys, ages 3, 10 and 13.

Though the two eldest children were more sophisticated than the average Muppet target audience, "all of them benefited," says Ms. Malkowski. "It gave them a feel for what was going to happen, and that it was OK to have feelings about it and talk about any problems they were having with it." Since the family doesn't live on a military base and the children attend public schools, "there isn't the same connection that you'd have on a military base with other kids going through the same thing," she adds.

Read the rest of the story in the Wall Street Journal.

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