Elmo and His Sesame Street Pals Teach Military Kids How to Deal with Post-Pandemic Stress

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Sesame Street dance and sing at Shaw Air Force Base.
Elmo and his friends from Sesame Street dance and sing at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., Nov. 1, 2012. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Krystal M. Jeffers)

Ricardo is a puppet with light blue fur. He's also a disabled veteran who sometimes has hard days.

But he tells children about the importance of looking for the good within the bleak. It's what he calls his "went wells" -- things in his day that, well ... went well. The coffee was excellent that morning and his therapy session was hard, "but in a good way."

That's how it goes on Sesame Street.

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Ricardo, a friendly muppet monster, is taking part in the iconic television show's new wellness resources made for military kids and parents shaken by the pandemic as they persist through the routine -- but often disruptive -- realities of serving.

The initiative was launched Thursday under Sesame Street for Military Families, a program started in 2006 and meant to help the roughly 700,000 children under the age of 5 with a military parent cope with unexpected deployments, constant moves, homecomings and general uncertainty, according to its website.

The announcement comes as many families, not just military ones, are reeling from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic: shuttered school buildings, online classes, isolation from friends and family, the illness itself and other long-term consequences of the virus that are still materializing.

The resources focus on general aspects of wellness and how military families can tackle an already uncertain life with the compounding effects of the pandemic.

"Prioritizing self-care and staying focused on the positive can feel difficult some days," Jeanette Betancourt, Sesame Workshop's senior vice president of U.S. social impact, said. "However, the healthier the entire family is in mind and body, the more energy, patience and support they will have for one another and their community. Every little moment of self-care can have a big impact."

The new resources are digital and include five videos featuring Sesame Street's friendly muppet monsters, including one of its most famous characters, Elmo, who is part of a military family. The videos demonstrate strategies that parents can employ and in a way that is understandable and entertaining to their children as well.

Military.com's podcast Fire Watch had an exclusive interview with one of the minds behind the resources, Rocío Galarza, vice president of U.S. social impact at Sesame Workshop.

"Throughout the years, we've of course seen that different stressors become more important at different times. We started with a lot of deployments, the homecomings, continuing with a lot of relocations, and even small, what you would think are celebratory events like a birthday can become quite difficult if a parent is away," Galarza said.

She added that the pandemic -- including explaining COVID-related temporary duty assignments away from the family -- was an especially taxing factor. Parents began taking on what she said were new and sometimes unexpected roles in the face of increasing isolation and often with children at home away from a physical school.

Military parents may find themselves in a similar situation to some of the characters. For example, Elmo's mom, Mae, is rushing to prepare necessities for her child, absorbing the load of being a single parent while her partner is away.

Galarza recognized that the strategies are not always easy, and many -- not just parents -- have heard the term "self-care" thrown around, sometimes aimlessly and ad nauseam over the last few years.

"We know that we've heard self-care many, many times ... sometimes we're a little skeptical and how something very simple can help us throughout some of these stressors," she said.

"So, what we've done here is to model some of those simple strategies to give them a voice through our characters and to encourage both the kids but also the parents to look at how they incorporate these simple strategies in their everyday [lives]," Galarza added.

The resources, which are also available in Spanish, are part of Sesame Street for Military Families' broader push to provide guidance -- videos, games, printables -- to parents wanting a little extra help when dealing with military life.

They come on the heels of the Pentagon's new parental leave policy that gives new parents 12 weeks of paid leave after their child is born. Some services have not implemented their own policies, causing consternation among military families.

But imbued in the Sesame Workshop resources, according to Galarza, is an air of healing as the pandemic begins to fade.

"The stressors are real and children do feel stress," she said. "Having said that ... what we're also seeing is that once you put children in settings where they can interact with one another, where there are these nurturing and comforting connections between them and adults in their lives, children do bounce back."

-- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at drew.lawrence@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @df_lawrence.

Related: Fire Watch: Sesame Street's Push to Help Military Families Rattled by the Pandemic

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