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Sesame Street Teaches Troops' Kids Coping Skills

Washington D.C. - Elmo and his red, fuzzy father will star this summer in an effort to teach young military children and their caregivers how best to handle a parent's deployment in a program called "Talk, Listen, Connect: Helping Families Cope with Military Deployment."

This July, Sesame Workshop, the makers of Sesame Street, will launch the program as a DVD kit. Performed in English and Spanish, it will not air on television but will be distributed free to schools, childcare programs and family support centers, thanks to a gift from Wal-Mart stores and other sponsors. Jeanette Betancourt, vice president for content design at Sesame Workshop's Education and outreach division, said an analysis of the resources available to help children with this problem exposed a need.

"We found that although there was a wealth of information around deployment, it seemed to be targeted much more to children that were more school age, less so, materials that involved young children -- preschool -- and then even less so, Spanish language materials."

The kit is the result of analysis done by the workshop with support from the New York State Office of Mental Health and the Military Child Education Coalition. Focus groups composed of families with deployed members made up a large part of the study, Betancourt said.

The kit covers all phases of deployment -- from predeployment to homecoming -- and the unique challenges each phase poses, she said.

Sesame Workshop, a nonprofit education effort, has been doing these special projects since its inception in 1968. The group has done outreach projects on subjects like early literacy, asthma, lead poisoning, going to the doctor and school readiness.

Soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the workshop did a special set of TV programs called "You Can Ask," which focused on fear and grief in children under age 5. The TV programs, in English, Spanish and Chinese, were repackaged and distributed to childcare programs, mental health care programs, and the like, via the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Those programs' success helped lead to "Talk, Listen, Connect" because they developed an interest "on how we could talk about difficult topics with young children," Betancourt said. That model led to a partnership with Wal-Mart on this outreach project.

"We were looking for ways to meet an unmet need," said Mia Masten, Wal-Mart's northeast U.S. director for community relations. She said that when Sesame Workshop approached Wal-Mart, the retail giant gave $892,540 to produce the project, noting also that many of the company's employees are Reserve and National Guard members.

"It's really an extension of our long-term relationship with military families," Masten said. Wal-Mart is a member of America Supports You, a Defense Department program highlighting grassroots and corporate support for the nation's troops and their families.

Retired Marine Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden is an advisory board member on the project. He and several military members met with educators during a conference here in January and connected Sesame Workshop with the Military Child Education Coalition, which helped support the focus group research prior to taping.

Bolden said everyone on the panel agreed a significant portion of their time should be devoted to the unique problems of Guard and Reserve families. "For people in the Guard and, to some extent, the Reserve, this is kind of foreign to them, and deployments are not something they ordinarily did prior to now," he said. "Sesame seemed to have come up with a way to reach out to these kids who aren't in a military community the way that the active duty folk are, so that was one of the reasons that we felt they should be a special target for this project."

According to a 2003 demographics report by the Defense Department, 661,402 children of military members are under the age of 5. This project will produce 138,000 DVD kits, according to a press release.

Bolden and other retired military officers have offered to help distribute the DVDs "so that we reach the maximum number of families in the most critically needed areas," he said.

Although this program is targeted toward military children, Bolden said he already sees a benefit he had not foreseen when the project began.

"Military children are not the only ones who are involved in separation and deployments and the like," he said. "One of the benefits that you get by doing something like this is that you're also able to reach, say, kids from the State Department, kids from oil and gas companies, people whose parents are moving around and deploying all the time and undergo excessive absence much the same as military kids do."

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