By Master Sgt. Ann Young, 171st Public Affairs
/ Published December 04, 2008
October 26, 2008 -- CORAOPOLIS, PA., October 26, 2008 - Watching hundreds of children from southwestern Pennsylvania respond to Elmo in an aircraft hangar took me back to watching my own daughters respond to him two decades ago. Elmo and his crew of fuzzy, lovable friends bridge all gaps in time and place to accomplish a mission. Much like they were on a mission to teach my children the alphabet and numbers or to be cautious of strangers, the Muppets were on an important new mission this day; to help children of military members to deal with deployments, homecomings and changes.
Pittsburgh is the 41st stop on a live tour of 43 cities which began in July 2008. Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization behind Sesame Street, and the USO (United Service Organizations) teamed up to provide The Sesame Street Experience for Military Families: a free traveling tour to military installations across the country. The tour, produced by VEE Corporation, is part of Sesame Workshop's Talk, Listen, Connect initiative, a military outreach program which launched in 2006. The initiative provides support and offers significant resources for military families with young children experiencing the effects of deployment, multiple deployments or when a parent returns home changed due to a combat related injury. Military families who attended the 60-minute experience saw a live 25-minute character performance and received outreach materials from Talk, Listen, Connect and other partners.
The idea was born in 2005 after Sesame Workshop CEO and President, Gary E. Knell, arrived at work angry one day because he had heard about a deployed military member who couldn't make his mortgage payment and was forced to foreclose. He asked his staff "what can we do?" This simple question launched what Mr. Knell considers the most impactful program he has been involved with.
"The Sesame Street Experience for Military Families brings the Talk, Listen, Connect DVD and materials to life, and it reaches out directly to the families who face the challenges of military life each day," said Knell. "Our partnership with the USO further extends this initiative. We're visiting installations across the nation to help these families bond through emotionally difficult times, by providing an educational and entertaining show and outreach activities they can share."
Leslie Canterbury attended the show with her son Cole who couldn't wait to see Elmo. Jacob Canterbury, a nurse with the 339th Combat Support Hospital, wasn't able to join his wife and son because he was working at his civilian job as a nurse in a Veteran's Administration Hospital.
Tech. Sgt. Robert Brindza, a metals technician with the 171st Air Refueling Wing's Maintenance Squadron took time out to enjoy the day with his wife Deena and twin sons, Dominic and Robert. Brindza said, "I'm deploying in a week, and there is never enough time to get everything done at home before leaving, but I didn't want to pass up this opportunity."
"This is a terrific, ground-breaking new program for military families," said Edward A. Powell, President and CEO of USO World Headquarters. "Our partnership with Sesame Workshop on Talk, Listen Connect has been a great success and The Sesame Street Experience is a creative new way to deliver even more morale-boosting services and programs to our troops and their families."
Lynn Chwatsky, Senior Project Director for Sesame's Military Family Initiative, tells parents left behind during deployments, "If you can't take care of yourself, you can't take care of your children." This is why the initiative was designed with a dual-role in mind. Materials for both parents and children were intended for co-viewing. When a parent serves, the entire family serves. The initiative has been very cognizant of the need to reach Guard and Reserve families who don't always receive the same support or resources that a military member stationed at an active duty base might.
"We are extremely pleased and honored to have Pittsburgh selected as the only Reserve base to host The Sesame Street Experience," said Col. Gordon H. Elwell, Jr., 911th Airlift Wing Commander.
This awareness is especially important to the state of Pennsylvania as it not only has one of the highest numbers of guardsmen, but is also one of the most deployed national guards in the United States. While the total number of Pennsylvania Guardsmen is roughly 19,000, as of January 2009, there will have been approximately 23,000 deployment orders issued for guardsmen in the Keystone State since September 2001.
Some families have additional challenges when both mom and dad choose to serve. Tech. Sgt. Jamie Albertson and her husband Staff Sgt. Jacob Albertson, both with the 171st Air Refueling Wing's Maintenance Squadron, brought son, Aiden and daughter Claire. Before the show began, Jamie shared that "Aiden didn't know what he was in store for, but when he realizes it is Sesame Street, he'll be so excited."
The Public Broadcasting Station (PBS) will host a Primetime Special on April 1 highlighting 3-4 military families. The broadcast will drive home the fact that despite all that military families have been through, their dedication and resolve have not been compromised.
By the way, season 40 of Sesame Street is just starting production. This legendary programming is a timeless investment with messages, content, themes and characters still relevant four decades later! According to the Pentagon and military historians, today's military has a greater percentage of moms and dads than it has had in any other conflict, in part because of reliance on the National Guard and Reserves, and in part because of the growing number of women in uniform. So reaching large numbers of military families makes this worthwhile Muppet mission an industrious one. Funding is presently being sought to continue the initiative next year.