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Muppets help kids of Drum soldiers

TIMES STAFF WRITER
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FORT DRUM — Elmo and friends are on hand at Fort Drum this week to help military children sort through their feelings as their parents leave for a deployment or come back from war with an injury.


The program, The Sesame Street Experience for Military Families, hosted four shows at the Pine Plains Fitness Center on post over the past two days. The production is a 25-minute Muppet show that tells the story of how Elmo deals with his father leaving for a long time — which is the featured theme in the Sesame Workshop: Talk, Listen, Connect program.


"We realized there were three-quarters of a million military children out there and there weren't a lot of resources to help them with these challenges," said Lynn M. Chwatsky, the senior director of outreach initiatives and partners for Sesame Street. "We thought, who better than Elmo and his friends, someone who kids so identify with, to go through these experiences and model the kinds of conversations that should happen."


Fort Drum is one of the last stops on the nationwide tour, which visited 43 installations in all. At each show, children and parents are ushered in and given a Talk, Listen, Connect kit. The kit includes a DVD and informational materials from the program. While the materials are really geared for children, there is also a parent series to aid adults when it comes time to talk to their children about a first or multiple deployments.


"This is really, really special to help these families," said Joshua J. Bourque, the performance director for the show, who has worked with Sesame Street for five years as a performer. "I can speak for the whole cast when I say that it's really touching to see the smiles on these kids' faces. At one of the first shows, a mother came up to me in tears and told me that this was the first time she saw her son smile in six months. That's something."


The afternoon show at the fitness center Wednesday was full of small children, their parents and their snow gear.


Each child received a twirly Elmo light that he or she waved enthusiastically throughout the duration of the show.


"It's fantastic and it's a great way to relate to them what's going on," said Donna J. Handoe, wife of 1st Sgt. Frank C. Handoe of the 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry, 3rd Brigade Combat Team. Her son, Ryan C.V., is 4 years old and she says she's unsure if he knows exactly what's about to happen when her husband deploys in January.


"I'm just starting to bring up the idea that daddy is going to be far away for a long time," she said. "We've heard of Talk, Listen, Connect before but we haven't used it yet. The last deployment he was just too young to understand."


All materials for Talk, Listen, Connect can be accessed online or by requesting a kit. Since the beginning of the program, which started in 2006, more than 800,000 kits have been distributed to military families. More are in the works, as Sesame Street just received additional funding from the Department of Defense to produce another 300,000 kits. A PBS documentary, produced by Sesame Street, is set to air in April that will focus on families going through the deployment process.

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