Sesame Street and the USO Team Up to Help Military Kids Through Tough Transitions

By Kristen Baird Rattini

A classic Sesame Street song asks, “Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood?” The USO and Sesame Workshop have teamed up once again to bring a very important person from the Sesame Street neighborhood to military bases across the United States this year.

That VIP is Katie. In truth, she’s more like a VIM: Very Important Muppet. The offspring from the longstanding partnership between the USO and Sesame Workshop, Katie was created in 2011 to serve as a voice for military children. This year, Katie and several of her Sesame Street friends are hoping to hit the road again to sing, dance and speak with young military children in the U.S. about the transition to civilian life.

It’s a milestone that many of their audience members might be facing. Studies by the Department of Defense find that more than 1 million troops will exit the military between 2011 and 2016. That trend caught the attention of both the USO and Sesame Workshop. The partners sensed an urgent need—and timely opportunity—to address the topic through Katie’s eyes. “We often say, ‘When a service member serves, the entire family serves,’” said Dr. Jeanette Betancourt, the senior vice president of community and family engagement at Sesame Workshop. “Now we’re taking into account another tagline: ‘When a service member transitions, the entire family transitions.’”

The partners are well-matched for serving the changing needs of military families—and military children in particular. “Our mission at Sesame Workshop has always been to assist children to become smarter, stronger and kinder,” Betancourt said. “When we started to identify the needs of military families, we found there were very few resources focusing on the impact of deployment, injuries and grief on young children. The USO became a critical partner that not only shares the same passion but that goes on bases and delivers those resources wonderfully.”

Photo credit USO

Nicole McClendon, the Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families tour manager, said smiles on the faces of military kids and their parents are the one constant she sees at every tour stop.

In 2008, the partners launched The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families, a free stage show that tours military bases around the world. It was well received, but it seemed to be missing something. “We heard more and more that we needed to have a life-size military child Muppet who could speak from the point of view of the children,” Betancourt said.

Katie was introduced to military families by first lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden at a Joining Forces rally in Ohio in April 2011. The character is 6 years old, wears a flower in her bright orange hair and is Elmo’s friend. She and her military family have relocated several times. Katie’s backstory reflects her audience. A study by the Department of Defense Education Activity shows military kids move upwards of six to nine times during their preschool through high school education.

After Katie’s debut, the USO and Sesame Workshop knew where to take her next: on the road. They updated The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families in 2011 with a new live stage show featuring Katie. The 30-minute program, “Katie is Moving to a New Base,” targets military children ages 3 to 6. It opens with a sad Katie telling several of her Sesame Street friends—Elmo, Rosita, Grover, Cookie Monster and the Purple Honker—that she must leave them behind because her father has been transferred. Her Sesame Street friends help her see that they will remain friends despite the distance. They reassure her that change is not necessarily a bad thing and that she will make new friends.

“The show is told from the perspective of children and talks about those difficult questions and feelings they have,” Betancourt said. “We find that military families and children think of themselves as being the only ones having these feelings. We are reassuring children that they’re not alone.”

“Katie is Moving to a New Base” has been a huge hit at every stop of its annual tours. “The one constant in every state and in every country and in every branch of military service is smiles,” Nicole McClendon, tour manager for The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families, said. From the sentries who admit the 12- to 20-person road crew on base, to the troops who help them unpack and the volunteers who help with the show, smiles abound all around. “The audience usually has the biggest smiles of the day, on the faces of parents and kids alike,” McClendon said. “It’s always fun to see the reaction on kids’ faces as they meet Katie and realize that she is a military kid just like them.”

Elmo meets his biggest fans after a Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families performance at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 2014. | Photo credit USO photo by Dave Gatley

Katie, Elmo and their friends can’t visit every single military installation, so the Sesame Workshop/USO partnership has also long offered a wide range of support materials for all military families. Originally offered on DVD, they’re now also available on a newly revamped website:

“We try to evolve as times change and as the needs of military families change,” Betancourt said. “We recognized that military families are extremely tech savvy. This new website gives us the opportunity to provide this material in both English and Spanish in a much more portable and instantaneous format.” The website provides resources on not only broader topics such as resiliency and divorce but also military-specific milestones, such as deployments and homecomings.

Another significant milestone, of course, is the transition from military to civilian life. The new USO/Sesame Workshop show, “Katie’s Family Transitions to Civilian Life,” draws on direct feedback from military families to address the topic in a reassuring and optimistic way.

“So many families are facing the questions that Katie asks: ‘Where is she going?’ ‘How will they still be a military family?’” Betancourt explained. “The show talks about those fears and feelings but also the positive things she can share with her new friends at her new school. It emphasizes some of the pleasant aspects, like how they’ll transition together, as a family, and how she can still stay connected with her friends.”

When the 2015 world tour of The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families kicked off in May, it was as a double bill, featuring both the new transition-themed shows as well as the original moving-themed program. When the tour ended in October, the characters had performed more than 100 shows at 45 military bases in nine countries.

“The response to the new show has been incredibly positive,” Rachel Tischler, vice president of entertainment for the USO said. “Military parents are happy to have a resource that gives them a way to talk with their kids about a big change they’re going through and to make it less scary by using characters they’re familiar with.”

As the wide-ranging tour unfolded last year, Katie and crew got to share their upbeat program about civilian transition with military children closer to home. “Military families in the U.S. transition out of the military, too,” Tischler said. “We want to make sure they get to see the new show and have the same toolkit and resources.”

Not to mention the same fun. For at its heart, The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families is also a rare opportunity for military families to relax, dance, laugh and spend quality time together. “When the show begins,” McClendon said, “the happiness quotient expands.”

—Kristin Baird Rattini is a Missouri-based freelance writer. This story appears in the Spring 2016 issue of On Patrol, the magazine of the USO.

You can send a message of support and thanks directly to service members via the USO’s Campaign to Connect. Your messages will appear on screens at USO locations around the world.