On ‘Sesame Street’
By Amy B Wang
The Washington Post
In one of the latest “Sesame Street” videos online, a Muppet named Lily is cheerfully painting a rainbow mural with Elmo -- when she suddenly looks downcast.
“I’m not sure I want to paint anymore,” Lily says, dejected. “Doesn’t really feel like a rainbow kind of day.”
After some coaxing, Lily explains: They had gotten to the purple part of the rainbow, and purple is her favorite color. Her old bedroom was purple. But she and her family had to leave that bedroom behind.
“We don’t have our own apartment anymore,” Lily tells Elmo and an adult named Sofia. “And we’ve been staying in all different kinds of places.”
With that, Lily became the first “Sesame Street” Muppet to talk about being homeless -- and the face of a new initiative by the show to address homelessness.
Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational group behind the show, cited statistics from the Office of Head Start indicating a 100 percent increase in children experiencing homelessness in Head Start and Early Head Start over the past decade. Of the more than 2.5 million homeless children across the United States, nearly half are under 6, according to the group.
Those children must deal with unique “physical, emotional and psychological distress” related to their family’s housing situation.
“We know children experiencing homelessness are often caught up in a devastating cycle of trauma -- the lack of affordable housing, poverty, domestic violence, or other trauma that caused them to lose their home, the trauma of actually losing their home, and the daily trauma of the uncertainty and insecurity of being homeless,” Sherrie Westin, president of global impact and philanthropy at Sesame Workshop, said in a statement.
The National Head Start Association defines homeless children as those who “lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” This includes living in someone else’s home or places like a shelter, motel, campground or car.
Knowing these were real-life challenges for thousands of children who watched “Sesame Street,” Westin said they thought about ways to “disrupt” that cycle of trauma.
Enter “the resilient and relatable Lily, a 7-year-old Muppet whose family is staying with friends on Sesame Street after losing their home,” the group announced Wednesday.
“We want [homeless children] to know that they are not alone and home is more than a house or an apartment,” Westin said. “Home is wherever the love lives.”
Lily isn’t entirely new to the “Sesame Street” world: She was first introduced in 2011 -- while the country was recovering from the Great Recession -- as a Muppet who was struggling with hunger in a PBS special that dealt with food insecurity.
Lily largely disappeared after the PBS special. She will now appear in new online videos, storybooks and other free activities on the Sesame Street in Communities website and on YouTube, Sesame Workshop spokeswoman Hallie Ruvin said.
In one video, “Connect the Dots,” Lily tells Sofia -- the grown-up with whom her family is temporarily staying -- she’s afraid they might not ever have a permanent home again. Sofia then plays a game with Lily to remind her she is loved and not alone.
In “We Got This,” a poem that parents or teachers can download from the Sesame Street in Communities site, the verses gently remind homeless children that their situation is not their fault.
“Sesame Street’s new initiative on homelessness is nothing short of transformative for those of us working to create a sense of stability and hope for families experiencing homelessness,” Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a national nonprofit organization working to overcome homelessness through education, said in a statement.
There are no plans to include Lily in “Sesame Street’s” televised episodes for now, Ruvin said, though other Muppets have made the transition from online to prime time, as it were.
Last year, “Sesame Street” introduced Julia, a Muppet with autism, to the television show. Like Lily, Julia had made her debut on the internet, in a 2015 “Sesame Street” online storybook titled “We’re Amazing, 1, 2, 3!”
“Sesame Street” aired its first episode in 1969, and for decades, it has remained one of the most powerful and effective ways to reach children. In 2015, a landmark study showed that children could benefit as much from watching “Sesame Street” as from going to preschool. The show now runs on HBO as well as PBS.
“Sesame Street” also has a history of tackling difficult life topics for young children where other shows might gloss over them. After the death of Will Lee -- the actor who played Mr. Hooper, the beloved proprietor of “Sesame Street’s” neighborhood store -- producers initially considered simply saying he had moved away.
Ultimately, they chose to address the character’s death on the show to teach children about death and grieving. “Farewell, Mr. Hooper” remains one of the most memorable and heralded episodes in the show’s history, winning a Peabody and Daytime Emmy awards.