- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Bert and Ernie, Big Bird and the Count have spent years teaching children right from wrong and how to count, but now some of their fellow “Sesame Street” neighbors will take on a new task: counseling military families.

Five “Sesame Street” characters are touring across the nation to entertain and offer advice to children with deployed parents as part of the Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families.

The tour, open only to military families, is scheduled to visit 40 military bases in the United States, giving one or two shows a day. It previously has performed in military bases overseas as well.

As of its performances last weekend at the Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida, the Sesame Street program had served more than 152,000 families since its launch in 2008.

The show “gives a moment of respite and joy to these families,” said Sloan Gibson, president and chief executive of USO. “And weeks after it comes through, there’s still buzz about it.”

The show, featuring the “Sesame Street” Muppets Elmo, Zoe, the Cookie Monster, Grover and Rosita, is geared toward 3- to 5-year-old children, but even the parents appreciate the message the “Sesame Street” characters put across.

“The families usually get to see what the soldier is going through abroad,” said Monty Campbell of the Fort Hood, Texas, public affairs office for the Army, who added that he has had nothing but good responses to the show.

“The message has been helpful; [my kids] came up talking about their feelings,” said Luelisse Torres-Rodriguez, a mother of two whose husband is a major in the Army, often deployed for one to six months at a time. Her family went to the 25-minute show twice at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., which “made [the children’s] day,” she said.

“And it let me become a kid, too,” Mrs. Torres-Rodriguez added.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, presented some of the tour’s materials to the Pentagon in April, and first lady Michelle Obama commended the program at the National Military Families Association Summit in May.

Gary Knell, president and chief executive of Sesame Workshop, said this project grew out of an article he read about a military family losing their house because of missed mortgage payments while the husband was deployed.

“I was enraged by it, and then I realized that while we talk about supporting our troops, no one is working with the families,” he said.

Then Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit group behind “Sesame Street,” and USO, a nonprofit organization that provides entertainment to deployed soldiers, combined to start the Sesame Street tour, which is the second-largest tour in the nation after the circus, Mr. Knell said.

During the performance, according to Mr. Gibson, Elmo will turn to the audience of parents and children from 1 to 10 years old and ask, “Do you miss Daddy when he’s away?”

As most kids quietly nod or murmur yes, Elmo will empathize with them, saying that his father is also deployed, Mr. Gibson said.

“The program relates to the kids and lets them know that dealing with deployment is tough, but we’ll get through it together,” said Bill Austin, public affairs officer at Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville, Fla., adding that in Mayport, deployment is a way of life.

The $4 million program is run entirely on contributions from the USO’s 2-million-donor pool, including hundreds of major corporations, Mr. Gibson said.

“All you have to do is look at the faces of the kids — the look is one of sheer delight,” Mr. Gibson said, describing the first time he saw the show as what inspired him to take it around the world. He added that the lines are so long at the naval bases that they sometimes schedule extra shows.

Heidi Malkowski, an Air Force mother of three whose husband just came back from a one-year deployment in Korea, helped coordinate the tour at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey and said her own children “had a blast” at the program.

“It’s nice for them to know that there are other kids that are going through the same thing,” she said. “It’s good support for them.”

The shows also provide outreach materials for children and parents, giving advice on how to talk about the stress of deployment. Mr. Knell said this approach will help both the family and the soldier.

“When the kids feel good, the soldier feels a lot better about getting his job done overseas,” Mr. Knell said.

“I feel like we’ve hit a niche, and we’re filling a need that was not filled before,” he added.

Although the USO and Sesame Workshop are only “discussing the potential for moving forward” with the Sesame Street tour, according to Mr. Gibson, the two organizations said they will continue to offer resources for military families after the tour ends in September.

Mr. Gibson said he hoped the Sesame Street tour would send a message to the children especially: “Thank you for your service and your sacrifice.”

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