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May 24, 2012
By Rob McIlvaine

WASHINGTON (Army News Service, May 24, 2012) -- Gen. Ray Odierno, Army chief of staff, presented five Outstanding Civilian Service Awards Wednesday night at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Va. One went to a woman who is rolling out a new Sesame Street initiative this week for the children of deployed parents.

Up until 13 years ago, Lynn Chwatsky had spent years grinding out copy for an advertising firm when she got the job that fulfilled her.

Her work will also culminate May 26, with the unveiling of a new outreach initiative, "Little Children, Big Challenges," along with the anthem, "What We Are," at New York City's Intrepid, a museum aboard the U.S.S. Intrepid, a national historic landmark.

"Now I have this opportunity to really do good stuff for children," said Chwatsky, vice president of Sesame Workshop's Outreach Initiatives and Partners.

"I'm in the department that helps children in need, so whether it's military children, or children with special needs, or children who are not literate that's what we do, we create materials and resources for them."


"At the end of 2005 our CEO was commuting into work and saw a cover story in the New York Times. The article was about a young service member who was deployed, a young wife home with two young kids, she couldn't make payments on her mortgage, and her house was being taken a

The CEO called a group into his office, showed the article and, said Chwatsky, he was visibly angry. He looked at all of us and said, "we need to be doing something as a country to support these families with these young service members."

Chwatsky is a member of a division called the Educational Outreach Division.

"We don't do TV. What we do is we identify a need in the target audience and we see how we can use media, all different types of media, whether it's the screen, print, online, and social media, how we compare media and the powerful Muppets that educate the light and really hit children and adults so well. How we can combine those two and really address an unmet need," she said.

First, they needed to understand their audience.

"We quickly found out that about 800,000 children under the age of 5, at that point, were impacted by a parent's deployment with very few resources available for these families to give these kids an understanding of deployment, and an understanding of how to talk about their feelings when a parent's deploying, and how to stay connected when a parent's deploying," she said.

So they got together a leading group of advisors who could help inform them on the lives of military families, military children, and on the people who work with military children, whether they're teachers, providers, or social workers, and to really understand what was needed.

"In 2006, we launched the first phase of our work which was helping families cope with deployment. So, predeployment, deployment, and then, of course, homecoming. This was about helping these parents engage in a dialogue with these young children, and to give them each appropriate information and reassurance that they're still loved and cared for, even though major changes are going on in their life," she said.

The video has Elmo going through a similar situation when his dad gets ready to go away to do an important job. Elmo was scared and anxious, he didn't know what to do so he talked to his friends on Sesame Street and they said, "go talk to your parents."

After their talk and sharing mementos, they looked up at the same moon together, miles apart, and said good night to each other. They also wrote letters, spoke via webcams, and they stayed connected.

When his dad came home, Elmo realized that he had gotten into new routines and he had to readjust.

"The story is so reflective of a military child's experience. We've heard numerous stories from children, based on watching this, that they were able to engage in a dialogue with their parents. What was also amazing, the parents reported to be doing better from this work, because when you know you can help your child or take care of your child, you feel better," she said.


"We've also produced videos when a parent comes back injured, with either a physical injury or an invisible injury, and we've done the death of a parent."

These multi-media kits are disseminated for free to military families all over the world.

"MilitaryOneSource is our big hub for distribution and we encourage everybody in the military to go there and get copies of these resources," she said.

In addition to that, she said, Sesame Workshop also has a partnership with the USO. The tour has been traveling around the world since 2008, bringing the Muppets to kids to help them through some tough situations, and entertain them, as well.

"We are here to support our military families and help build resilience in them. We will always have war, we'll always have deployments and we will always have these kids who are constantly moving and we know that whether it's a little change or a big change in these kids' lives, we need to be there to support them.

"Before I started working on this project, I had never had experience with military families. This project has changed me. I was sitting next to General Ray Odierno last night and I said that to him. I am a changed woman now. I am a changed mother and I'm a changed wife, and I'm a changed person because I've met all these service members and their families."

"The award last night I am so honored and humbled because this is a team effort here at Sesame, and it's our little way of saying thank you to all our service members and their families for serving us and our country and our families every day."

"It's the ultimate service. Every day you go to work to serve this country and that's pretty powerful and until you really live it with these families, you don't' really understand it," she said.

"I'm proud to be a part of it."


In honor of Memorial Day, Sesame Street will debut its new anthem "What We Are," for its resiliency initiative, "Little Children, Big Challenges," their newest outreach initiative at New York City's Intrepid.

"What We Are" will be performed live on the Intrepid May 26, by the Quantico Marine Corps Band with Sesame Street's Gordon, Elmo and Rosita, and the host of Lifetime's "Coming Home," Matt Rogers.

"It's for military families, but it's for all families, truthfully. It's resilience, helping empower kids, helping kids build their self-esteem, find the right words to feel strong and to ultimately go through life's challenges. It's really all about giving kids and families the right words to be empowered, because words really do help us build our resilience. So this will be the beginning of a two-year-long resilience initiative for our military families, again, building on the work we've done to date."

The "What We Are" anthem will be available on Sesame Street's website for military families, as well as Sesame Street's YouTube Channel. In addition, new online resources for "Little Children, Big Challenges" will feature the anthem along with new interactive tools for children and families.