When President Obama announced last week that 33,000 troops will return home from Afghanistan over the next year, tens of thousands of families rejoiced. In their cases, one of those troops is a loved one. Maybe a parent.
Like any transition, though, the return of a mother or father from a war zone will not always be smooth.
“Psychologists tell you that entrances and exits are the most critical times for communicating with a child. Children are most concerned about a family member coming home and then having to leave again.” Gary E. Knell, the President and CEO of Sesame Workshop wrote me in an e-mail exchange last week.
“We want to provide resources to help parents try and build a sense of normalcy and to promote resiliency and hope.”
Sesame Workshop is the nonprofit organization behind Sesame Street, among other children’s initiatives. It was founded about 40 years ago with the intent to provide support for lower-income families. That mission has morphed over the years and has now broadened to embrace the more than 700,000 pre-schoolers in active military life.
The military focus came out of outrage. It was 2005 and Knell was on his way to work reading a newspaper. He came across an article about a military family whose house was repossessed while the father was fighting in Iraq.
As Knell tells it, by the time he arrived at work he was determined that Sesame Workshop could create a support system for military families.
“I thought, how could Sesame Street characters ease the difficulties families were going through? We weren’t experts on the subject, but we know how to create compelling content to address difficult issues,” Knell said.
Since then, the Workshop has created USO shows that tour military bases, a series of DVDs, including one that has Elmo confronting amputation, and other materials. Most recently, a new character named Katie has been introduced to address the stress of moving from a child’s perspective.
The effort has been so successful that 2.5 million bilingual outreach kits have been distributed. Other groups, too, have dipped into the resources. The State Department, for instance, has been known to suggest the deployment DVDs to their Foreign Service employees.
I asked Knell what message the Workshop most wanted kids to take-away:
“You’re not alone. There is a community of people both within and around the military that will support you and that they too are going through parallel circumstances,” Knell wrote.
“It is important to bring a sense of normalcy to their childhood; children can still have fun and not feel guilty.”
“We wanted to give parents coping skills on how to bring their children along during the challenges of deployment, first, and the transitions military children go through as mom and dad go away for extended periods of time, once or twice or three times….
“That initiative was then extended to injury (both physical and invisible), and finally, to grieving (for both military and the general public); talking to your kids about the death of a loved one. We wanted to help families address the question, “How do you create a new normal?” and in the end, give these families coping skills,” Knell wrote.
The support materials are free and available at www.sesamestreet.org/tlc — a terrific Web site for any parent.