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'Sesame Street' not just letters and numbers anymore, Rotarians learn

Published 5:49 pm, Monday, January 24, 2011
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pmccormack@bcnnew.com

Stretching its way through 140 countries, "Sesame Street" is the longest street in the world.

And the iconic children's program is using its Muppets cast to delve into far more sensitive issues and feelings than the standard letter of the day or counting games, Sunrise Rotarians were told during a recent meeting at Bobby Q's restaurant on Main Street.

Westporter Andrew Ames, vice president of global productions at Sesame Workshop, told members that Sesame Street's role has expanded to tackle issues such as HIV, international politics and even death and grieving.

" `Sesame Street's' mission is not just about teaching ABCs and 123s -- reading and arithmetic," he said. "We're also teaching major global issues."

At the non-profit Sesame Workshop, Ames oversees Sesame Street co-productions outside the U.S. and Sesame Street primetime specials in the United States.

Among the global issues the Muppets have explored are girls' empowerment in India, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Egypt; respect and understanding in Northern Ireland, Israel and the Palestinian territories, he said.

"We're also teaching health issues like malaria in Nigeria and Tanzania; HIV and AIDS in South Africa where our star is a 5-year-old girl muppet named Kami, who is HIV positive."

On the homefront, outreach initiatives are a core of the mission Ames leads.

Among them, he cited:

Healthy Habits for Life: The program helps parents instill healthy habits during their children's earliest years, from eating healthy foods to keeping their bodies active and healthy.

Math Is Everywhere: Offers instruction in math skills, using examples from everyday activities.

Let's Get Ready: About helping families prepare for emergencies. The initiative was launched after Hurricane Katrina.

Since 2006 Ames said, "Sesame Street" prime-time specials on PBS have moved into some topics far more sophisticated than the number or letter of the day.

"One on economic insecurity was titled Families Stand Together, Ames said. The program was hosted by Elmo and TV personalities Al Roker and Deborah Roberts.

"Another called TLC -- Talk, Listen, Contact -- was aimed at the almost 800,000 pre-school children in the U.S. separated from a parent serving in the military, Ames said. "And for far too many families, the challenges continue after Mom or Dad comes home."

TLC gives military families a toolbox of resources and strategies for coping with deployment, coming home with injuries and death, Ames said. "We consider this initiative one of the most important we've done during the 41 years of `Sesame Street.' "

Hosted by Elmo and Katie Couric, the segment "When Families Grieve" focuses on both military and civilian families.

"For all three parts of TLC we've made and distributed almost 2 million outreach kits to military and civilian families. The kits include a DVD, a parent and caregiver guide, and activity books to help kids cope when parents are deployed, when they return home with combat-related injuries -- or when they don't return."

The workshop has made 840,000 kits on family grieving and distributed them through nearly every national, regional and local organization that comes in contact with grieving children and families. Kits went to 1,000 grief-counseling centers, camps, schools and hospices."

"On military bases in 20 states, we've created 35 Sesame Rooms that bring the furry, familiar joy of our Muppets to nearly 4,000 military children each week," Ames said. "And through our partnership with the U.S.O., `Sesame Street' gives live performances on military bases around the globe to give children a much-needed break from the everyday challenges when their Dad or Mom is deployed."