In a shoebox-size studio at Sesame Workshop’s headquarters on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, cast and crew members expert in all things Muppet are preparing to film a 90-second video starring Elmo and his new friend, Karli, a lime-green monster with yellow-feathered pigtails who is in foster care. The purpose of the scene, as with so many Sesame stories, is to use pretend play to address a real-world issue “without overstating it,” says Kama Einhorn, a senior content manager for Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit that creates both Sesame Street and a slew of other educational materials that, like this video, live entirely outside the show.
The cast reviews the plan for the scene: Elmo and Karli will use their stuffed animals to construct a castle out of blocks. But when Karli’s stuffed elephant accidentally knocks over the castle, the cheerful Muppet will crumple with guilt. As Elmo consoles her, Karli will quietly admit that she used to feel similarly because of her mom’s “problem,” until she learned that drug addiction isn’t her fault and that her mom loves her “no matter what.”
The story appears straightforward, but Einhorn and her supervising producer, Melissa Dino, have meticulously engineered every line of the script, channeling the perspective of their young viewers. “Kids can understand the concept of accidents not being your fault when they can see what happens in the physical world,” explains Einhorn. Teaching them to apply that principle to a familial relationship that’s being roiled by substance abuse is difficult, but crucial.
With the cameras rolling, Elmo and Karli run the scene from the top. By the time the actors hunched below the camera’s view stretch their characters’ furry limbs into a closing hug—with Elmo telling Karli that he, too, loves her no matter what—the crew members are wiping their eyes. “It’s always a good sign when the crew gets teary,” Einhorn says.
Since Sesame Street first aired on public television in November 1969, the program has been speaking the language of childhood without relegating children to a separate, sanitized sphere. (Remember Teletubbyland?) With its signature mix of Muppets and humans, singsong make-believe, and grouchy New York grit, the Sesame formula has helped the nonprofit behind the show, Sesame Workshop, grow into a multifaceted organization that produces content reaching more than 150 million children in 150 countries every day.
Sesame has never shied away from challenging subject matter: It dealt honestly with the real-world death of the actor who played Mr. Hooper in 1983, and has addressed everything from HIV/AIDS to Israeli-Palestinian relations in the decades since. But in 2015, led by Jeanette Betancourt, senior vice president for U.S. social impact, the nonprofit began exploring the idea of creating an online library—with videos, storybooks, activities, and more—for children who have experienced trauma, as well as for their caregivers and service providers. The initiative, Sesame Street in Communities, launched two years later and has been methodically tackling specific topics. In 2018, it was homelessness. This year, it’s foster care and parental substance addiction. Next up will be gun violence.
“There is more and more science and understanding of the impact that traumatic events have on a child’s ability to learn,” says Sherrie Westin, president of social impact and philanthropy for Sesame Workshop. That impact, she says, is profound, and intervention is increasingly vital.
“The sad reality is that children are the first to get hurt and the last to get help,” says Jerry Moe, who counsels kids about addiction in their families as the national director of the children’s program at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. “Addiction is this disease of silence, secrecy, and shame,” he says, and yet “children know when something is wrong.” If no one in their life takes the time to explain what’s happening, kids make up their own explanations. “Often it’s that they did something wrong or that their loved one doesn’t love them anymore,” explains Moe. “That’s not what we want little kids to carry.”
Moe serves as an adviser for Sesame Street in Communities’ substance-abuse project, which launched last October in response to the opioid crisis. The initiative follows a model that Sesame Workshop developed to address issues that lack resources appropriate for young children and their families: Sesame’s writers and producers convene subject-matter experts—educators, social workers, child developmental specialists—for a daylong advisory session, and then use the resulting feedback to shape video scripts, storybooks, and downloadable guides for parents and service providers.
When it comes to addiction, the need for such materials is daunting: 8.7 million children nationwide have a parent who suffers from addiction; substance use is a factor in roughly one-third of foster-care placements; and opioid overdoses claim the lives of 130 Americans every day. The well-being of children affected by this crisis is increasingly precarious. Over the past few months, Betancourt’s content team has published a storybook, filmed nine short videos, and produced an interactive digital experience, along with a handful of other online activities—all aimed at addressing the anxieties of children whose families have been upended by addiction. Her team also worked with the Jim Henson Company to create the Muppet Karli, who serves as the anchor character for this content.
Sesame’s free online library is an important first step toward increasing access to these resources. Now the organization has to introduce them into homes, schools, and community centers. Recently, it has been piloting the use of what it calls “comfy-cozy” spaces in more than a dozen treatment courts. Created in collaboration with the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, the areas feature a kid-size Muppet-character chair alongside stuffed animals and storybooks. When a parent arrives for a hearing, children are invited into the colorful nooks, which put a welcoming face on intimidating surroundings. Sesame is seeking funding to expand the project and searching out community-based nonprofits to amplify its other content. “We’re struggling with what’s a scalable model, because it varies [from] community to community,” Westin says.
And the trauma keeps mounting. Last spring in Chicago, Sesame held an advisory session on gun violence that included leaders from organizations that serve affected communities. “If I had closed my eyes, I could have been in Beirut or Jordan,” Westin says of the conversations. “Regardless of the circumstances, the physiological impact on a child who experiences prolonged exposure to stress is the same, and [their] need is the same.” Sesame plans to roll out content around the topic in 2020.
The challenge for the organization is how to fund this work in order to grow it. In the past couple of years, the nonprofit’s international arm has received a lot of attention and money, thanks to a pair of blockbuster $100 million grants that are enabling it, in partnership with the International Rescue Committee, to create materials for refugees who have fled Syria and Myanmar. Here at home, Sesame Street in Communities is relying on the $16 million that it has raised since its inception in 2015. Part of the difficulty, according to Westin, is the public’s misperception that Sesame is rolling in money from character licensing deals. (In reality, they accounted for about $35 million of the company’s roughly $124 million operating budget in 2018.) “We want to raise the bar [for fundraising],” says Westin, “to try to have the same kind of impact domestically as we are having in the humanitarian space internationally.”
On a rain-swept evening last spring, Westin joined Sesame Workshop cofounder Joan Ganz Cooney, president and CEO Jeffrey Dunn, and celebrity guests including Lin-Manuel Miranda, John Legend, and Elmo (in a custom tuxedo) at Sesame’s 50th-anniversary gala. The event was both a showcase for Sesame’s achievements and an opportunity to raise important dollars. (All told, the gala generated $4.5 million.)
The cavernous ballroom at Cipriani Wall Street was packed with tables, each set with white orchids and yellow feathers that fluttered in the candlelight. After dessert, the gala’s star honoree, Michelle Obama, rose to the podium and described the role Sesame played in her Chicago childhood. As she spoke, a clip from 2014 played of her slow-dancing with Big Bird in a supermarket produce aisle.
Back then, Sesame Workshop was partnering with Obama to get children to eat healthier. These days, it’s just as likely to be comforting them in times of crisis. But for this night, at least, Sesame’s supporters were happy to relive the warm glow of the past. “Boundless aspiration with simple goodness: You take people to that place every single day,” Obama said. The crowd stood to toast Sesame with her, clapping and clapping.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2019 issue of Fast Company magazine.