Sesame Street Makes a Place for Military Families

Rosita and Family

Rosita (right) struggles to accept her father's injury after he returns from war. Richard Termine hide caption

itoggle caption Richard Termine

Muppets Elmo and Rosita learn how to cope with having parents in the military in a new Sesame Street DVD. Gary Knell, CEO of Sesame Workshop, explains the inspiration behind the project. And Rosita shares how she coped when her father came home from war in a wheelchair.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. What's the most famous address in the country? It might be 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue where the president lives, but I don't think so. I think it's "Sesame Street." Though a fictional place, "Sesame Street" has become a beloved member of many American households where preschoolers live. And while well-known characters like Elmo and Big Bird and Rosita keep the kids laughing as they learn their letters and numbers, throughout its history, the program has also taken on serious issues like helping kids cope with sickness and loss.

Now, the producers of "Sesame Street," Sesame Workshop, recently released a DVD set for military families. Muppets Elmo and Rosita are the stars. They are faced with the deployment and homecoming of parents who have gone to war and a parent who has come back injured. Here to talk about this is Gary Knell, the President and CEO of Sesame Workshop, and here for the first time on Tell Me More, Rosita.

Ms. CARMEN OSBAHR: (as Rosita) Wow, I feel so important. Can you hear me?

MARTIN: And I should also mention that Rosita's special friend Carmen Osbahr is here...

Ms. OSBAHR: (as Rosita) Who?

MARTIN: Who is helping Rosita to talk.

Ms. OSBAHR: (as Rosita) Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: Hello everybody.

Mr. GARY KNELL (President and CEO, Sesame Workshop): Great to be here.

MARTIN: Gary, tell us about the project. How did this idea come about?

Mr. KNELL: Well, you know, it originally came about, truth be told, that I was riding the train one day and picked up a copy of the paper and there was a story about a soldier's house being foreclosed upon and his family being kicked out while this guy was over in Iraq. And I was so upset about this. I came into the office like a raving lunatic and I said we had to do something about this. And let's find out more about these families who must have preschoolers. ..TEXT: Well, we found out, Michel, that there are some 700,000 preschoolers of Active Duty military and Guard and Reserves who are dealing with these issues of deployment, these long deployments, multiple deployments, let alone mom or dad coming back injured in some way. And that we felt through "Sesame Street" that we might be able to create some learning tools for these families to cope with these extraordinary situations.

MARTIN: What are some of the stories, the scenarios that you deal with in the DVD?

Mr. KNELL: Well, the new DVDs focus really on three things. One is deployment in general, which can be a quite upsetting thing to a young child who in so many ways need a consistency and normalcy in their lives, the average child. So now you're uprooting a mom or a dad for an extremely long period of time for them.

The second arena is with multiple deployments because we know there are so many of them. This is the biggest deployment since World War II. And then third component is really focusing on the soldiers, some 30 percent of whom are coming back with either visible or so-called invisible injuries. And trying to deal where mom or dad comes back different.

MARTIN: There is one I wanted to talk to Rosita about. Rosita?

Ms. OSBAHR: (as Rosita) Yes.

MARTIN: I understand that your daddy was injured when he came from war. Was that scary?

Ms. OSBAHR: (as Rosita) Well, you know, things at home start being different when he came home. Poppy came home and I didn't know how to talk to him, and I was missing a lot doing the things that I used to do with him because you know, we used to run races and most of the times I win, of course. And we used to kick ball and then suddenly he need his chair to do everything.

So one day I was really sad and my friend Elmo, you know Elmo? My friend Elmo. I have a beautiful friend, and he talked to me and he said that I should tell my daddy how I was feeling because I was sad, yeah, sure.

MARTIN: Hold on a second. You mentioned that your daddy uses a wheelchair now. Let me play a short clip from the DVD and then we'll talk about that.

Ms. OSBAHR: (as Rosita) All right.

(Soundbite of "Sesame Street" DVD)

Mr. KEVIN CLASH: (as Elmo) Rosita, why is your daddy in a wheelchair?

Ms. OSBAHR: (as Rosita) Remember when I told you that he got hurt?

Mr. CLASH: (as Elmo) Yeah.

Ms. OSBAHR: (as Rosita) Well, ever since then he has needed that thing.

Mr. CLASH: (as Elmo) But why isn't he walking?

Unidentified Actor: (as Rosita's father) Well, Elmo, my legs were hurt and now they don't work like they used to. So I cannot walk. I use this wheelchair to help get around.

MARTIN: What do you think, Rosita, is the hardest thing about your daddy being in the wheelchair?

Ms. OSBAHR: (as Rosita) Well, the hardest thing for me is that he has to go to the doctor a lot and I don't see him. And I was waiting for him for such a long time and then he come home, you know, and things changed.

MARTIN: And the other thing I noticed is, Rosita, you didn't want to tell your daddy how you felt.

Ms. OSBAHR: (as Rosita) No, no, no, I didn't want to hurt his feelings so make him feel sad. I was - I just didn't know what to do.

MARTIN: Did Elmo helped you figure out what to do?

Ms. OSBAHR: (as Rosita) Well, he told me that every time he feels like that, sad, that he always talks to his mommy or daddy and I did. I did and it worked because my daddy was so wonderful. He told me that probably, you know, he seemed to change, but his love for me and, you know, our family was going to be stronger and the love was there and he make me feel very comfortable, yeah.

MARTIN: Gary, I noticed that one of the things that these DVDs do is encourage parents. Well, first of all, they have a warning. They encourage parents to watch the DVD first and then to talk about it with the kids after they've already had a chance to see it. But one of the things I noticed is that they're really clear that you shouldn't lie to your kids about what's going on. You should just be really upfront about the fact that things have changed. How did you get the idea for that?

Mr. KNELL: Kids are, and especially kids in the military, are very resilient and the fact is, is that these kids in the military community are used to being around a lot of other kids whose parents are going through somewhat similar situations. So in order to cope with these situations, it is much better to be upfront and open in a timed way that it makes sense. You don't want to tell your child too early and you don't want to pop it on him or her two minutes before you're leaving, either.

So there's a way of letting a child emote and letting a child live through the emotions that are going to be natural as part of the, you know, the growing up process when a parent has to leave the home for an extended period of time.

MARTIN: Rosita, I want to ask your special friend Carmen something.

Ms. OSBAHR: (as Rosita) Oh, dear God. OK.

MARTIN: Carmen, you are the voice behind Rosita.

Ms. CARMEN OSBAHR (Actress): Yes, I am.

MARTIN: Do you think it's important that she be bilingual and Hispanic?

Ms. OSBAHR: Claro que ci. Well, it's great that she's able to express herself and I'm able to do it in Spanish, too, for so many Americans that they speak the language too, and they have that background, so of course it is.

MARTIN: Do you think though that - and I'm asking you to generalize here in a way that might not be fair, but do you think that perhaps people in the Latino community might be even more reluctant to share their pain and anxiety about this, not want to feel, not want to express all that's going on - just not wanting to be a burden?

Ms. OSBAHR: You know what, it's so funny that you're asking me that because I'm personally, I'm going through some changes in my house, and yes, you know, the Latino in me comes out of, you know, keeping it strong and not saying anything. And the best thing as a personal experience is to talk about it and to talk to your children about it. I mean, my son watched this video with me and he expressed to me that he was angry for everything that was happening. So yes, it's important for them to know that it's OK to communicate and to share your problems.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News and I'm speaking with Gary Knell, president and CEO of Sesame Workshop and Rosita, a Muppet who's featured in a new DVD set for military families, as well as Rosita's special friend, Carmen Osbahr, who helps her talk.

Carmen, to the degree you feel comfortable, would you just tell me about what it is you're struggling with in your house? Was it a health issue?

Ms. OSBAHR: Yeah. It's a health issue and it's something that appear from one day to the other one. One day my husband was fine and the next day he was not and it's going to be something that is going to take a long time to, you know...

MARTIN: Well, just, I ask because I know I was raised that way. You know, I wasn't raised in such a way that, you know, you weren't encouraged to ask your parents' business.

Ms. OSBAHR: You no complain.

MARTIN: You weren't encouraged to complain or to say that something was making you upset or angry.

Ms. OSBAHR: Yeah. No. I get you. I was raised up like that, too.

MARTIN: Gary, when you're putting together something like this where you're trying to help people - kids figure out how to cope with a situation, who do you talk to?

Mr. KNELL: Well, "Sesame Street," from the beginning, you know, it grew, Michel, out of, you know, the 1960s and the war on poverty. And the original intent was to try to bridge the gaps of kids who were prepared for school and those in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods who weren't. And what there was, was a connection with academia which knew nothing about preschool television and television producers who didn't know a heck of a lot about education, and they were able to connect the dots, really, by bringing in advisors in early child development who could advise them on building a curriculum for the whole child, dealing with cognitive things like ABCs and 123s, health issues like washing your hands or brushing your teeth, which we've now taken to places like South Africa in dealing with HIV and AIDS and taken to other issues, and then in social and emotional learning. It's very important to have all three of those covered.

So what the workshop does when it targets a situation like this or deals with child obesity, which is another project we've been working on, is to bring in a group of advisors who work with children, who can tell us what the key components are. What are the key message points we want to get across? In this case, it was about talking, listening and connecting. About talking to your children, about listening to their concerns and making sure that you connect so you develop what they refer to as a "new normalcy," which is another way of creating routines which are so critical to early child development.

MARTIN: And, Gary, there's another scenario. I want to play a short clip of this one. I'm going to go to the deployments one, where Rosita's dear friend, Elmo, is sad because his dad is about to be deployed. And let's play a short clip of that.

(Soundbite from "Sesame Street" DVD)

Unidentified Actor: (as Elmo's father) Listen, son, do you know what today is?

Mr. CLASH: (as Elmo) Thursday?

Unidentified Actor: (as Elmo's father) Well, yes, yes it is Thursday, but it's also that day we talked about. Remember, the day I have to go?

Mr. CLASH: (as Elmo) Oh, yeah. Daddy's got to go away for lots and lots of days, right?

Unidentified Actor: (as Elmo's father) That's right, son.

Mr. CLASH: (as Elmo) Well, can Elmo - can Elmo go with daddy?

Unidentified Actor: (as Elmo's father) Well, I sure wish you could, son, but daddy's got to go do grown-up work. I need to go help some people. It's a very important job and well, it's just something I have to do.

Mr. CLASH: (as Elmo) Won't daddy be lonely all by himself?

Unidentified Actor: (as Elmo's father) Oh. Well, I'll be around other grown-ups who will help me do my job and watch out for me, but well, it won't be the same without you.

MARTIN: It's lovely but it's also sad. It's hard. It's hard to watch because you know that any child is going to be sad just seeing their parent. Did you - does the military have an input on how they want that to be handled?

Mr. KNELL: I think it wasn't so much of the military dictating how they want it handled. It was really how experts from different places, from Walter Reid, from Duke University and other places, who we relied upon to give us advice of what is a typical situation, what is a typical child reaction? To play those out, and what you're doing here, Michel, is you're giving the parents an ability, by viewing this together, to use Elmo and Rosita, really, as role players so that they can speak to their own situation.

Remember how Elmo had talked to his dad about leaving and how sad Elmo was. Well, I know you're sad like Elmo was, but this is what has to happen. So it's a way of showing them that they're not alone, that other people are going through this similar process, and it gives them a little bit of security in knowing that they're not alone and that it's a little more normal.

MARTIN: And I noticed that these DVDs are being prepared for military families. How will they get them? Can they buy them? They can get them through their family support organizations?

Mr. KNELL: They're not for sale. They're underwritten and they are available in the Military One Source Web site, as well as Sesame Workshop's Web site, as well.

MARTIN: But I can envision a scenario, though, where neighbors of families who are deploying and neighbors of service members who are returning, might want to know how they can be more helpful and more supportive and sensitive. I just wondered was there any opportunity for people who are not in the military to have access?

Mr. KNELL: Absolutely. And again, they're available through these Web sites and, you know, we like to make them as available as possible. In fact, I think, you know, my own personal view is that the wars that we are in around the world are probably too removed from the average American's life right now, and this is a way of actually talking about the real sacrifices that these soldiers and their families are making and getting the rest of America sensitized to understand what, in fact, these sacrifices really mean.

MARTIN: And also who have parents who are coming back injured and who are friends - I think a lot of times people wonder, you know, how to react appropriately, how to teach their kids to react appropriately.

Mr. KNELL: Exactly. And, you know, in this third piece, Michel, where we're dealing with soldiers coming back with injury, having lost a limb, and seeing other children at a supermarket who may be afraid of them or run the other direction, and this is a way of actually giving kind of coping skills to children of those soldiers as well as the soldiers themselves when they're coming back. It's a "new normal" that you have to build. This is the way it is and this is the way that we're going to have to cope in the future.

MARTIN: Rosita?

Ms. OSBAHR: (as Rosita) Yes.

MARTIN: Can you help us, if there might be other kids listening to us whose mommies or daddies might be coming back not the same as they were before, what you learned about how you can feel better?

Ms. OSBAHR: (as Rosita) Well, I learned that, you know, that changes are difficult, but if you talk to your parents or your friends and you tell them how you're feeling, that you will see like it happened to me. My daddy told me that yeah, he changed, but his love for me didn't changed and that we were able to find new ways of doing things together, you know, different things together and now, you know what? Now I can even dance with my pappy. You know, again, because that was one of my favorite things to do with him.

And if you're there and your daddy or mommy came home, you know, with a change like my daddy, don't worry. You're not alone. You know, talk to your mommy. Talk to your daddy and talk to your friends. You have probably a lot of people there that they care for you.

MARTIN: And I'm going to ask Rosita's special friend, Carmen, again, what about the parents? What's your message to the parents when they're watching this DVD whose kids might be scared about the things that have changed?

Ms. OSBAHR: Yeah. Well, to watch the video with them because that worked for me. I didn't know that my son was a little bit, you know, upset and angry. And it's really good because it gives you tools that it could help, so I'm very proud of what Sesame Workshop is doing and for me it was a very special and important project.

MARTIN: Gary Knell is president and CEO of Sesame Workshop. We were also joined by Rosita.

Ms. OSBAHR: (as Rosita) Gracias!

MARTIN: And Rosita's special friend who helps her talk, Carmen Osbahr. They joined us here in our Washington studio. Thank you so much for coming.

Mr. KNELL: Thanks so much.

Ms. OSBAHR: (as Rosita) Thank you! Adios!

(Soundbite of "Sesame Street Theme")

MANY VOICES: (Singing) I'm on my way, to where the air is sweet! Can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street?

MARTIN: Remember, at Tell Me More the conversation never ends. If you want to find out more about this DVD for military families, please go to our Web site at npr.org/tellmemore. Now you just heard our Muppet friend Rosita tell us about how she felt about her daddy coming home from war. We'd like to hear your stories. As Memorial Day approaches, is there someone special who has served his or her country that you would like to acknowledge? Please let us know. We would like to share your thoughts with our other listeners.

We're at the close of our show today. This one on the air, but we're still talking. You can call our comment line at 202-842-3522. Again, that's 202-842-3522. Or you can visit us at npr.org/tellmemore and blog it out. And we know it's not easy to keep up with the blogosphere, so let us help you out. You can subscribe to our blog by email. Just visit the site and sign up. Everyday, you'll get an email telling you where the conversation is headed. Now I write the blog and I'm a subscriber, so check it out. And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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