WASHINGTON – When Sgt. 1st Class Rudolph Leonard, a Maryland National Guardsman, left in November for a year in Afghanistan, his wife Paula, of Owings Mills, struggled to help their 3-year-old daughter, Tayler, cope.
“She was in a really, really bad way,” Paula Leonard said. “She would wake for him. She would cry for him. She would ask for him all the time.”
The military offered Leonard a surprising solution: an Elmo DVD.
Maryland National Guard families are using a new DVD — “Talk, Listen, Connect: Helping Families During Military Deployment,” produced by the same people who put on “Sesame Street” and in partnership with Wal-Mart Stores.
The New York State Office of Mental Health and the Military Child Education Coalition also had a hand in its production, which is designed to help preschool-age children deal with feelings and concerns before, during and after a parent’s military service away from home.
The 23-minute DVD starring television’s favorite fuzzy red Muppet was created for the nearly 750,000 American children under 5 who now have a parent deployed with the armed forces, the highest number since World War II.
Available in English and Spanish, it comes with a companion video for parents and other tools to help families deal with their situation. Wal-Mart has paid $1.5 million to create about 400,000 of the kits. Sesame Workshop declined to disclose the rest of the cost of the production.
“Nothing is scary,” said Jeanne Benden, coordinator of the Maryland Air National Guard’s 175th Wing Family Program. “These kids, they have their own ideas of what’s going on, I think. And whatever you can’t explain to them, they’re going to explain to themselves in their own way,” she said.
“And it’s not always a good way of explaining. I think Elmo does it in a really non-threatening way.”
The DVD kit has been a godsend, said Theresa “Beth” Stoddard, Maryland National Guard state youth coordinator.
“We have so much out there for middle-age to teenage kids. It’s the little, little ones we’ve been having trouble helping.”
Small children don’t always know what they’re feeling, or have the words to describe their emotions, Benden said. The DVD is an easy way to get dialogue going.
Tayler Leonard has watched the DVD several times, and her mother has noticed a difference.
“It quieted her down. She seems to do better through the night.”
In “Talk, Listen, Connect,” Elmo copes with the deployment of his dad Louie.
Words like “war,” “danger,” and “deployment” are never used.
Instead, 3 1/2-year-old Elmo realizes “Daddy is going away for lots and lots of days.”
Louie says that he will be gone doing “grown-up work” that helps people, “a very important job” he describes as “just something I have to do.”
Elmo’s purple-haired Muppet mother, “Mrs. Elmo’s Mommy,” and her husband teach Elmo with Texas twangs and thoughtful tunes to reach out when he’s feeling low.
“Daddy’s going away for a while. We’re going to be here for you, to keep you smiling, to see you through,” they sing with Elmo’s Muppet friends Rosita and Telly.
Rituals are emphasized in the DVD as a way to maintain normalcy and open communication.
Elmo and his mom keep busy fulfilling daily routines and doing special art projects while Louie is gone. Together they bake him a welcome-home cake.
Louie’s return is treated gently, addressing issues families often face when a parent returns from service, whether for a two-week leave or more permanent stay.
The Elmo DVD has provided Paula Leonard context for discussing her husband’s absence in various ways.
“It’s not just about an absent parent, or a parent who doesn’t want to be there. It’s about a parent going off to serve their country, to go to work.”
Elmo is a trusted source among the pre-school set, and small children understand him.
“Your Daddy is like Elmo’s Daddy. He’s going away and coming back,” Paula Leonard has told her daughter.
The Military Family Research Institute, a Purdue University research program funded by the Defense Department, and Russell Research Inc., a private research firm, recently studied 367 families experiencing deployment that used the kit for four weeks.
The DVD received a high “appeal” rating from 94 percent, namely for its ease of use, ease of comprehension and respect for military culture and values.
More than 80 percent of families said they were more comfortable helping their child cope with deployment, and many parents reported improved behavior from their children and a decline in their own feelings of depression or hopelessness.
In the companion video for parents, families of soldiers deployed once or more discuss strategies for dealing with everybody’s emotions.
Leonard hasn’t seen that video yet, but would like to.
“I have my bad days with this,” she said. “We tried to plan, pre-plan, pre-pre-plan. There’s nothing that can prepare you for this. . . . We’ve got another kind of battle that we’re fighting as a spouse, that nobody really recognizes or pays attention to, but we do. And it’s very hard.”
The Elmo effort is not the nonprofit Sesame Workshop’s first instructional video to help kids cope with complex issues.
In 2000, Sesame Workshop introduced Kami, a mustard-yellow, happy-go-lucky and HIV-positive 5-year-old Muppet, to educate South African children about AIDS, which then affected one in nine of their countrymen.
The workshop is considering making another DVD kit for military families, one that will help children and their families develop skills and understanding to better handle visible and “invisible” injuries a parent sustained in war.
“Talk, Listen, Connect” kits are distributed free to military families through Military OneSource, at www.militaryonesource.com and can be downloaded at www.sesameworkshop.org/tlc.
-30- CNS 4-13-07