The room was full of military families as Muppets sang new “Sesame Street” songs aimed at preschoolers with parents in faraway Iraq and Afghanistan.
When Elmo, who speaks to that age group as only a 31/2-year-old furry red Muppet can, said sadly in his high-pitched voice, “Sometimes there are days when I miss my daddy,” a child in the audience blurted out, “I miss my daddy, too!”
It nearly brought the room to tears.
But organizers and parents know it also shows that where adults fail, fuzzy creatures can succeed: Even when kids are grieving over war and separation, they'll listen to, and learn from, Elmo.
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“It's a very serious topic, but the magic of ‘Sesame Street' makes it a great way to talk to kids about something so serious,” said Michelle Joyner, spokeswoman for the National Military Family Association, an advocacy group.
The Elmo event at the Reserve Officers Association in downtown Washington last month kicked off a new “Sesame Street” tour, in conjunction with the USO, of 43 military bases.
The tour is part of “Talk, Listen, Connect,” a joint project between the children's television show and the Department of Defense. Its intent is to help young children cope with deployments, homecomings and parents who return injured.
Military families are under a lot of stress. The war in Iraq has lasted five years; the fighting in Afghanistan, seven. Many have endured multiple deployments. Or worse.
The death toll from the wars approaches 5,000 troops. More than 30,000 have been injured.
There are 650,000 children under the age of 5 in Guard, Reserve and active-duty families. But until 2006 the outreach never carried the kind of message that beloved icons such as Elmo and the Muppets can explain to children.
“What we do best is preschoolers and their parents,” said Lynn Chwatsky, senior director for outreach initiatives and partners at Sesame Workshop. “We have these powerful Muppets that we have found for over 40 years can really communicate with children.”
Sesame Workshop is the nonprofit group behind the television show. It collaborated with family advocates inside the Pentagon and with other experts to develop videos using Muppets, as well as interviews with real military families.
Their research found it wasn't only the children who were confused about the sudden changes at home.
“Can you imagine the frustration of these parents who feel like they didn't have the right tools or vocabulary to talk to them about it?” Chwatsky said.
The videos have the playful innocence that is the trademark of “Sesame Street,” but also its underlying seriousness of purpose. And they never refer to the war by name.
“Daddy's got to do grown-up work,” Elmo's father tells him when he is about to go away. “I need to go help some people. It's a very important job. It's just something I have to do.”
But he tells Elmo: “I'll still be able to see the moon just like you. We can each say ‘good night' to the moon every night and think of each other.”