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Helping military families cope

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April 6, 2007

By NOELENE CLARK

Joanna Lopez, 29, says it’s never easy when her husband, Ernesto, is deployed overseas for Army service.

The first time he was deployed, Lopez’s three children, now ages 10 years, 6 years and 4 months, who live at Fort Bragg, N.C., didn’t understand how long their father was going to be away. They expected him to be home after a few days or weeks, she said.

"It was hard," she said. "I didn’t know what to expect, or what the kids were going to ask me."

She turned to other military families for ideas about talking to her children, which she shared in "Talk, Listen, Connect," a Sesame Street film for families with deployed service members.

The film, produced by Sesame Workshop, a nonprofit organization that produces educational media, features the personal experiences of military families and the story of the popular red Muppet Elmo, whose father is about to be deployed overseas.

Lopez said the film has helped her cope with her husband’s third deployment.

"Now I’m more prepared," she said.

The film is distributed in a kit for military families with preschoolers and can be found online at http://www.sesameworkshop.org/tlc/.

"The materials themselves filled a very important gap in the literature and tools for military families," said Leslye Arsht, deputy undersecretary of defense for military community and family policy.

Arsht said the Defense Department didn’t have much support for preschool children and their parents, and the department recognized the need to have another organization help.

"There can be no more powerful voice of support than Elmo," Arsht said. "His voice is a universal support."

The video begins on Sesame Street with Elmo and his father, who is carrying a duffle bag, ready to begin deployment.

"Daddy’s got to go away for lots and lots of days, right?" Elmo says, sadly.

"That’s right, son."

"Can Elmo go with Daddy?" the Muppet asks, suddenly excited and hopeful.

"Oh 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 it’s just something I have to do," Elmo’s dad tells him.

The story shows Elmo and his father exchanging personal items to help remember each other, Elmo and his mother reading books and marking off days on the calendar and a jubilant homecoming, complete with the initial hesitance and shyness a young child might have after not seeing a parent for a long time.

The story ends with a song about being proud, in which Elmo and his father sing, "I try my very best with everything I do/ To make you just as proud of me as I am proud of you."

"Part of the reason this is so important is because children trust these characters so very, very much," said Patricia de Stacy Harrison, president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. "We have an opportunity to maybe make them feel a little bit better about their situation, that their world isn’t falling apart."

The kit also includes a section for parents in which military parents and their spouses share ideas for activities for preschoolers and ways for grown-ups to cope themselves. The kit suggests letters, phone and Webcam conversations ("long-distance hugs"), pillows with pictures of parents in uniform, prepared videos of the parent who is going to be away and a strong support system of friends and family.

The video addresses difficulties parents face when they return. One father said it was hard to accept that his children had become accustomed to turning to their mother with questions or for comfort.

"It was hard to swallow. I wasn’t No. 1 in the skinned-knee department," he said.

Harrison said the filmmakers used suggestions from military families in focus groups when scripting the film.

"It really draws on the actual experience of military families," Harrison said. "It’s not rhetoric."

Gary Knell, president of the Sesame Workshop, said the project was inspired by "the emotional toll that the conflicts of deployment overseas has on families."

"We learned that if a soldier is deployed, a whole family is deployed," Knell said.