After attending Wednesday’s rehearsal of the Sesame Street/USO Military Family Experience kickoff event in Columbus, Ohio, I was thinking about the genius of the Sesame Street developers who created ‘Katie,’ the new character who tells Elmo during the program that her military family has to move, once again, to another base.
Since the character says so much about what children of our service members have endured since September 11, 2001, I set out at Thursday’s event to find a real 'Katie,’ who is living the story that Sesame Street has so vividly created for military kids, as well as children who may not realize why some of their friends have to move away. After about 90 minutes of searching inside the Franklin County Veterans Memorial auditorium, I came across little Isabella Haas.
[caption id=“attachment_5452” align=“alignright” width=“250” caption=“Maj John Haas and his daughter Isabella, 3, wait for the kick off of the fifth installment of The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families at the Franklin County Veterans Memorial in Columbus, Ohio April 14, 2011. (USO Photo by Fred Greaves)”][/caption]
As Isabella awaited the appearance of her favorite Sesame character, Elmo, her father, Army Maj. John Haas, told me that she had just celebrated her third birthday the day before the special performance in Columbus. Maj. Haas and his wife, Dawnann, also planned on enjoying the day with their daughter, because soon, the soldier will be headed to Afghanistan, where he will spend 270 days apart from his little girl.
When I asked Maj. Haas what it will be like spending so much time away from his wife and child, he visibly shuddered, graciously deferring to his spouse to answer a very emotional question.
“We have the Sesame Street book,” Mrs. Haas said, referring to 'Talk, Listen, Connect,’ which was handed out for free at the performance to help kids cope with deployments, homecomings, and changes, and also includes DVDs. “We’re also making a cut-out of dad for her to hug, putting her daddy’s voice in a recorded storybook, and figuring out how to use Skype, even though he’ll be in an area that doesn’t have much internet access.“
In addition to Sesame Street, the USO, and the Joining Forces program, Mrs. Haas is channeling other important resources to help her and Isabella cope with the difficulties of the near future. Maj. Haas’ three brothers are also in the military, and one may still be deployed in Afghanistan when her husband arrives. Mrs. Haas said she plans to lean on her sisters-in-law, as well as another important force in her family’s life.
"Faith will get me through,” she said. “The hardest part is Isabella — she’s old enough to know he’s gone, but not old enough to understand.“
When Katie explained to Elmo, Cookie Monster, Grover, and Honker that she has tough days ahead, perhaps little Isabella could relate. Maybe by watching Katie, it helped Isabella realize that her daddy isn’t leaving because he wants to, or because he doesn’t love her. It’s because he’s a hero, and this is what heroes do.
Isabella wasn’t the only 'Katie’ in the audience. ‘Katie’ is every child who has seen their mommy or daddy leave for a faraway land, or moved with their parents to unfamiliar places around the world.
A few minutes before the performance, Sesame Street and the USO gave little Isabella Haas, sitting on the lap of her soldier dad, an autographed picture of all the characters in the show, including her favorite, Elmo. “To Isabella, we love you,” a character wrote.
For 270 difficult days, that picture will hopefully remind Isabella of a day she laughed and smiled together with her mom and dad. With so much love surrounding this child, I have to believe that even better days are still to come.