Sesame Street / USO Experience for Military Families Cast Members Share Their Favorite Tour Memories

Grover, Cookie Monster, Katie, Elmo, Honker and  Rosita sing and dance for service members and their kids during The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families which kicked off April 7, 2012 at Scott Air Force Base. (USO photo by Fred Greaves)

Grover, Cookie Monster, Katie, Elmo, Honker and Rosita entertain service members and their kids during The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families on April 7, 2012 at Scott Air Force Base. (USO photo by Fred Greaves)

Since 2008, the Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families tour has made unforgettable memories for military children and their families all around the world. The longest-running annual USO tour has delivered moments to hundreds of thousands of military children and their parents through more than 735 shows at more than 144 military bases in 11 countries.

In the spirit of the USO’s Every Moment Counts campaign — and in preparation for entertaining the tour’s 500,000th audience member — members of the 2014 cast and crew shares some their favorite Sesame Street/USO Experience memories.

Here’s just a small sample of the amazing stories they had to tell:

“My favorite moment actually happened in Spain. … A little girl came up, she gave me a picture to give to Elmo. I brought it backstage, gave it to Elmo, and the picture said, ‘Thank you Elmo for coming all the way across the sea to Spain, just to see me.’ And I think it really brought home exactly how important it is for these kids to see this show.” — Stephanie Harmon, performance director

“I have many favorite moments, but one that happens every single day [is] when hundreds of kids and parents walk out with huge smiles on their faces, holding onto their Elmo spinning lights, telling me how much they enjoyed the show, and they constantly say thank you to me. Its a stream of ‘thank you’s. And since I think the show is our way of saying thank you to those same military families, it’s great to just get that cycle of thank you.” — Nicole McClendon, tour manager

Want to learn more about the Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families or see if a show is coming near you? Find out more here.

With Parents Deployed, Military Toddlers Confront Monsters

He’s the baby on the block, but he already knows his A, B, C’s; his 1, 2, 3’s; and his Do-re-mi’s. He’s perpetually turned 3-and-a-half for nearly 20 years, but he’s still “got new shoes.”

For toddlers, he’s an A-List celebrity. For parents, he’s nothing short of a red felt superhero.

Elmo is back with the Sesame Street gang in the USO’s longest-running traveling show and the first-ever designed specifically for military families.

The Rood family and the Mowry family got a chance to meet the whole gang back stage, May 16, at the Wallace Theater on Ft. Belvoir. USO photo by Joseph Andrew Lee

Families like the Roods, who saw the Sesame Street/USO Experience at Fort Belvoir just three weeks before moving to a new duty station. Their 2-year-old son Deyvian may be too young to absorb what’s happening, but his older brother, 4-year-old Marques, will have to make new friends for the first time.

“I think it’s pretty cool how they incorporated a new character to talk about relocation,” said Army Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Rood, who came with his two sons and his wife, Kimberly, to see the show May 14 at the Wallace Theater.

Make no mistake—Marques and Deyvian are both diehard Elmo fans. But they might find they have a lot in common with the new kid on Sesame Street.  Her name is Katie, and she’s a 6-year-old military child moving to a new place. She is confronted with the same concerns of today’s real life military families like the Roods—the separation and anxiety of a deployment, and the stress of packing up every few years and relocating to a new base, a new city or a new country.

Ella Terry, 5-year-old daughter of Navy LCDR Ronald Terry, connects with Sesame Street character Katie, a 6-year-old girl who understands what it’s like to move to a new duty station. USO photo by Joseph Andrew Lee

Ella Terry is just 5 years old, and she likes that “Katie had a daddy in the military too.”

“I am a military child and you are a military spout (spouse),” she said, pointing to her mom, Beth, wife of Navy LCDR Ronald Terry.

“Ella has already moved from Maine to San Diego to Washington D.C. in just her first 15 months of life,” said Beth Terry. “And though the transitions were great and she had no idea it was happening, in a couple years we will move again, and I appreciate being able to remind her of Katie.”

Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Mowry is currently deployed to Afghanistan. His 2-year-old daughter, Keirah, attended the show with her mom, Crystal. At night, Keirah dances with her Rock and Roll Elmo doll and spins around giggling every time she hears him laugh. Her mom recalls doing the same thing when she was young.

“I remember learning so much from Sesame Street,” Crystal said. “Now, being able to watch her enjoy and grow up with the same characters, it is just incredible.”

Before the show, the Mowrys and the Roods had the chance to actually meet Elmo, Katie and the whole gang face to face. After her one-on-one with the not-so little red monster, Keirah was elated.

When asked what her deployed daddy would think about her meeting Elmo, her jubilation quickly subsided and her brows began knitting. She responded quietly, staring down at her feet.

“Daddy’s far, far away for work,” she said. ~ Story and photos by Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

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The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families tour has performed more than 371 shows on 115 installations in 33 states and 12 countries – lifting the spirits of 222,000+ military families. Tour dates, character bios and tour information can be found at www.uso.org/sesame

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The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families 2012

New character Katie tells her friends she is moving during the 2011 Joining Forces: Sesame Street/USO Special Event. USO Photo by Fred Greaves

The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families – a free, traveling USO tour based on Sesame Workshop’s award winning Talk, Listen, Connect initiative – made its debut in July 2008 to help families deal with the unique challenges children of military parents face. For almost four years the tour has visited multiple states and countries, spreading their messages to troops and their families.

The tour is heading back out to the United States this April with some new wheels! The half-hour show focuses on the challenges of deployments and their impact on military kids. During the performance, Elmo and his Sesame pals will help Katie – a military friend relocating to a new place – open up about her fears and excitement in dealing with change and making new friends.  Created exclusively for this tour, Katie was first introduced last April by First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Biden at a Joining Forces rally in Ohio.

But before these fuzzy, furry monsters get on their way, Sesame Street and the USO are reaching out to their fans via Facebook for help naming their new tour bus! Visit Facebook.com/SesameStreetForMilitaryFamilies to submit ideas for bus names and be sure to stay tuned to Facebook.com/theUSO for voting on the top picks!

Stop by USO.org/Sesame to learn more and see where the tour is heading next!

Finding Katie

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.

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)

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)

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.

Faces

What I will remember most about Thursday’s Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families kickoff event in Columbus, Ohio, are the looks I saw on faces of elated children and their smiling parents, many of whom were wearing military uniforms.

Sesame Street/USO Experience USO Photo by Fred Greaves

With multiple deployments and frequent moves already under their belts, and more possibly on the way, April 14 at the Franklin County Veterans Memorial auditorium was a day to laugh, hug, and even shed some tears of joy. Thanks to the supremely talented professionals behind Sesame Street, performers like Nick Jonas and Navy veteran Udo Maroscher, who sang the Star-Spangled Banner, the hard work of the USO, and the graciousness of America’s First Ladies, these military families were able to press the pause button on the stress of their sacrifices, if only for a few moments.

“Being deployed is part of being in the military, but it’s hard,” Air Force Master Sgt. Ed Ralston told the USO while sitting next to his nine-year-old daughter, Amber. “The kids aren’t always old enough to understand. My wife of 20 years, who has been with me all the way, explains to our little girl that ‘daddy will just be gone for a little while.'”

A new Sesame Street character, Katie, debuted on the tour, which hits Alaska next, to help children of U.S. service members understand the complicated realities that affect their families on a daily basis. Sesame Street’s efforts to create this unique symbol of post-9/11 military life, as well as the USO’s enthusiasm in showcasing the program, were met with genuine appreciation from special guests in the audience.

“This is something special that these kids deserve,” Stephanie Millender, wife of Army Staff Sgt. Thomas Millender, said as the couple’s excited kids waited for the show to begin. “I still remember all the birthdays my husband missed, but today, we feel blessed.”

The wife of Army Staff Sgt. Brian Newcombe, who deployed overseas in 2005 and 2008, admitted that they pulled their two daughters out of school early to attend the once-in-a-lifetime event, which was about an hour away from their Mt. Vernon, Ohio, home.

“Their teachers couldn’t believe they were going to see the First Lady,” Barb Newcombe said.

The euphoric emotion I saw on the faces of Mary, 11, and Megan, 9, were in stark contrast to how the children reacted to their dad’s most recent deployment.

“It was tough,” Barb said. “Our oldest stopped eating for a while and our youngest got mad, and just kept being angry while he was away.”

When I asked young Mary how she felt when her father got home from his deployment, she smiled, and nodded an enthusiastic ‘yes’ when I asked if it was the hardest she’d ever hugged her dad.

USO president Sloan Gibson called military children the event’s “VIPs,” and appropriately, they were treated like the most important people in the packed auditorium. Gary Knell, CEO of Sesame Workshop, joined Gibson in paying homage to our men and women in uniform and their children. Dr. Jill Biden led a round of applause for military kids, as Michelle Obama issued a call to support Joining Forces, the White House campaign to help loved ones of our nation’s true heroes.

“Everyone can do something to support military families,” the first lady said to loud applause.

Judging by the looks I saw on the faces of children and their parents on Thursday, Sesame Street and the USO are off to a fine start. Now, with those faces burned into our memories, the hard work of putting our military families first begins anew.

Joining Forces Rally with Sesame Street / USO Show

For the third consecutive year, the Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families – a free, traveling USO tour based on Sesame Workshop’s award winning Talk, Listen, Connect initiative – will re-deploy and land in 10 different countries. Officially announced by First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, Phase V of the tour will kick off at a Joining Forces Rally today in Columbus, Ohio. We are now officially live blogging, be sure to refresh your browser window to see all the updates!

4:50 PM ET:
The lights have dimmed! A video with First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden talking about their experiences meeting with military families and learning about their unique strengths and challeneges they face. “Together we can serve our heros as well as they served us.”

5:05 PM ET:
They’re currently showing some USO PSA’s – you can watch them at YouTube.com/USO4Troops!

5:10 PM ET:
They just showed a great video on Sesame Workshop. 5:25 PM ET:
People are restless for the show to begin! Unveiling a brand new Sesame Street character designed exclusively for the USO tour, the show will also boast a new theme, a new set design and new music with familiar faces to connect with military kids of all ages. I can’t wait to see it!

5:35 PM ET:
Mayor Coleman is up on stage speaking! “I want to thank the USO, First Lady Michelle Obama, Dr. Jill Biden and of course Sesame Street! And this other guy… Nick Jonas!!!” I think all the adults’ ear drums have just shattered!

“I have a son … who was deployed to Iraq two times. We understand all the anxiety and stress families in this room face.” He’s speaking on all the great programs the city of Columbus, Ohio has for the military and veterans.

5:40 PM ET:
Udo Maroscher just sang the National Anthem, be sure to read about him in our post A Silver Star.

5:45 PM ET:
General Craig McKinley of the National Guard is now speaking. “I feel like Elmo’s helper tonight.” He’s talking about the great programs Ohio and the USO have for military and their families.

5:46 PM ET:
Sloan Gibson, President & CEO of the USO, and Gary Knell, President & CEO of Sesame Workshop, have taken the stage. Gibson is letting the children in the audience know how important they are!

Knell is speaking on the Sesame Street show and how it helps other children understand, “What it’s like being a kid in the military… What its like to be a kid who needs to move around, who has a mom or dad deployed in the military.”

5:50 PM ET:
Nick Jonas has taken the stage! He’s playing his guitar and singing and everyone is standing and clapping! On stage and singing with him is his friend Sonny Thompson.


5:58 PM ET:

Elmo has taken the stage!! Everyone is dancing in their seats, it’s the Elmo Slide! Step to the front, step to the back, and flap your arms!! Rosalita has now taken the stage with Elmo, and now Grover too! Lots of screams as Cookie Monster comes out, maybe more than Nick Jonas got!

6:05 PM ET:
We’re all singing along. First, the Sesame Street theme song, “Another Sunny Day,” which was written for Sesame Street Live.

6:08 PM ET:
Katie, the new character, is on the stage. She’s a military child and is talking about how her family has to move again. “It seems like whenever I feel settled in a place, I have to move again.” Elmo responds, “Friends can be friends, where ever they are!” They’re now singing about all the ways people can stay in touch, calling on the phone, writing a letter, sending pictures (“Or cookies!”) or chatting on the computer.

6:14 PM ET:
Rosalita is singing about her favorite Spanish word, “amigos.” It means friends!

6:16 PM ET:
Katie says she still feels better, but still feels blue. Grover and Cookie Monster burst into song about dancing away your blues. “Put on your dancing shoes, and say goodbye blues!”

6:19 PM ET:
Elmo is now singing about “things are always changing” and “change can make you happy!” If your family is always moving to new bases, it’s important to try to look at it as an opportunity for new friends! “Maybe moving won’t be so bad after all. It can be like an adventure!”

6:21 PM ET:
But it can be hard to be the new kid and make friends. Elmo recommends just taking it a step at a time and just say “hello.” Oh my, now Elmo, Grover, Cookie Monster, the whole gang have gone off stage and are saying hello to people!

6:26 PM ET:
Katie is now singing about being the best “me I can.” It’s about getting stronger and stronger, so you can achieve anything! Katie feels much better and ready to face this new chapter in her life knowing all her friends are there for her!

6:32 PM ET:
First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden have taken the stage! More cheers than Nick Jonas and Cookie Monster combined! “Michelle and I have come here today to say thank you to all the military and their families. Together we can join forces!!”

Michelle Obama: “We would not have this night without the USO and Sesame Street and our dear good friend, Nick Jonas. I also want to thank all the military kids and family in the audience tonight, you are the guests of honor!”

“This effort is about all of us joining forces as Americans. Jill & I believe that everyone can do something. Everyone can ask themsleves, ‘What can I do? How can I give back?’ If we all work together, if we all join together, we can serve our military families as well as they served us!”

6:40 PM ET:
First Lady Michelle Obama & Dr. Jill Biden are shaking hands with miltary families in the front of the auditorium!

The event is over, be sure to check out Joining Forces to learn more about this new initiative in support of military families. The live blogging of the Joining Forces Rally was brought to you today by the letters U, S and O!