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Sesame Street partnership helps Baltimore children cope with trauma | Commentary

Salia Woodbury, left, from Irvine, California, appears on the set with "Sesame Street" muppet Karli and puppeteer Haley Jenkins during a 2019 taping about parental addiction. Data show 5.7 million children under 11 live in households with a parent with substance use disorder. Salia's parents are in recovery after struggling with addiction and she shares her experience with the show's Karli, whose muppet character has a mom who is also in recovery.
Salia Woodbury, left, from Irvine, California, appears on the set with "Sesame Street" muppet Karli and puppeteer Haley Jenkins during a 2019 taping about parental addiction. Data show 5.7 million children under 11 live in households with a parent with substance use disorder. Salia's parents are in recovery after struggling with addiction and she shares her experience with the show's Karli, whose muppet character has a mom who is also in recovery. (Bebeto Matthews/AP)

As a native son and lifelong resident of this great city of Baltimore, unfortunately I’m too familiar with the impact of trauma on families and communities. Whether it be a parent struggling with substance use or a child witnessing gun violence, traumatic events can have a lasting impact on a child’s life.

This year, there have been more than 250 reported homicides in Baltimore alone with at least five teenagers falling victim in the last several weeks. Add this to all the challenges and change the pandemic has wrought, magnifying issues many families were already dealing with, such as addiction or parental incarceration. This is why it is essential that we continue to grow our efforts as a city to be trauma responsive.

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With the City Council’s passage of the Elijah Cummings Healing City Act earlier this year, we took an important first step that will help various entities with a public obligation better identify when a child has been impacted by trauma and respond in a way that takes that experience into account. This is vital because we know that children are remarkably resilient, and one of the ways to lessen the impact of traumatic experiences is to address them in a sensitive and age-appropriate way.

To build on this work, Family League of Baltimore — a data-driven nonprofit organization committed to a collective impact model by bringing the right partners together to improve outcomes for the city’s children, youth and families — developed a new partnership with the Sesame Street in Communities initiative. Sesame Street in Communities focuses on helping children develop coping skills and foster nurturing connections with the caring adults in their lives. They do this by offering a comprehensive suite of evidence-based resources including videos, activities and trainings for caregivers and community-service providers to help children better understand and overcome challenges such as trauma, homelessness, grief and parental addiction.

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At Family League, we will embed Sesame Street in Communities in our work with the Family Recovery Program, which provides supportive services to families grappling with substance use. We will also use it in our efforts to support new parents enrolled in any of Baltimore’s Healthy Families America home visiting network, an intervention designed to improve health and development outcomes for babies.

This partnership is ideal for a few reasons. It comes with Sesame Street’s unique way of tackling tough topics. Children who may be dealing with similar family struggles get to hear how some of their favorite furry and feathery friends cope, like Big Bird, who talks about how he uses his “comfy-cozy nest” as a safe space when he’s feeling anxious, and Elmo, who learns about the meetings his friend Karli and her mom attend to work through her mom’s addiction issues. This can help kids in similar situations feel less alone and more hopeful so they can begin their journey of building resilience and healing.

Also, while Sesame Street in Communities is a national initiative, it does not paint individual communities with a broad stroke. We are fortunate to have viable citywide strategies like B’More for Healthy Babies, which has demonstrated clear results in tackling the issue of poor birth outcomes. Instead it lets us tailor the initiative to the unique qualities and characteristics of Baltimoreans. And, like Family League, Sesame Street in Communities uses data to inform its programming, so it will also conduct research to inform how we and other partners like us can most effectively use the initiative and its resources through early childhood development programs across Baltimore.

The need for trauma-responsive services was high before the pandemic, 30% of children in Baltimore have experienced some kind of trauma. With this as a baseline, the current statistic is probably even more bleak. Nevertheless, these experiences do not have to define our children’s lives. Or our community’s ability to thrive. Let’s continue with the movement to help families navigate difficult times and overcome adversity so they can get on a path to a brighter, healthier future.

Demaune A. Millard (DMillard@familyleague.org) is president and CEO of Family League of Baltimore, which promotes data-driven, collaborative initiatives and alignment of resources to create lasting outcomes for children, families and communities.

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