How Sesame Street Is Helping Kids Hurt by Parental Addiction

Let's Talk Addiction & Recovery Podcast
Two superheroes are ready to save the world from evil and tyranny.

Nearly one in three children in America grow up in homes impacted by addiction—and most have no idea that other kids wake up with the same worries every day. Sesame Street’s newest Muppet, Karli, is helping millions of kids affected by parental addiction feel a little less alone. Listen in as host William C. Moyers talks with beloved children's advocate and clinician Jerry Moe, who collaborated on Karli's storyline and other resources to help kids and families heal from the hurt of addiction.

And we filmed this strong and courageous and powerful little girl talking about her mom's addiction for the first time in her life.

Jerry Moe

0:00:16 William Moyers
Hello and welcome to Let's Talk, a series of podcasts produced by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation on the issues that matter to us, the issues that we know matter to you, too. Substance use prevention, research, treatment for addiction, recovery management, education, and advocacy. I'm your host, William Moyers, and today I'm joined by the very venerable colleague, Jerry Moe, the Executive Director of the National Children's Program. Jerry, welcome.

0:00:43 Jerry Moe
Oh William it's great to be here with you.

0:00:44 William Moyers
Always good to be with you too, Jerry. And you know, whenever we get together we talk about things like children and substances and children who grew up in families with substances. And we talk about children recovering from substances. But today we're gonna talk about something that we've never talked about before. And it involves Big Bird and Elmo and Bert and Ernie. Tell us more.

0:01:04 Jerry Moe
Yes, it does. So the story is I was here in Minnesota, it would have been in August of 2018, and I'm at the airport going home. And I get an email from our dear friend and colleague, Sis Wenger.

0:01:16 William Moyers
Ah yes!

0:01:17 Jerry Moe
At the National Association for Children of Addiction.

0:01:19 William Moyers
She's been a big advocate for children for decades.

0:01:21 Jerry Moe
Oh, she's carried the torch and led the way for all of us.

0:01:23 William Moyers

0:01:25 Jerry Moe
And the email said that Sesame Street wanted to talk to me.

0:01:28 William Moyers
Wanted to talk to you.

0:01:29 Jerry Moe
Wanted to talk to me! And, you know, I just about came out of my skin 'Are you kidding me? Sis, don't fool around! This is too close to my heart!'

0:01:35 William Moyers
Wow. Ha ha.

0:01:37 Jerry Moe
And so I called and what it was about was the whole issue of addiction in kids. So Sesame Street in Communities it partners with agencies that work with children all across the United States. And about 18 months ago, they did a needs assessment. So they surveyed all of the professionals and all of the lay people who work with young people saying what are the biggest issues that children face today. That you don't have enough resources for.

0:02:05 William Moyers

0:02:05 Jerry Moe
Especially resources from a child's perspective. They came up with three things: homelessness, foster care, and addiction. And so about a year ago, Sesame Street introduced a Muppet. Beautiful little girl named Lily. Who is homeless. Her family is homeless. About six months ago, Sesame Street introduced another Muppet and this little girl's named Carly. And Carly was in foster care. And so what—what I have been working on with all of the staff of the Hazelden Betty Ford Children's Program is the introduction of a brand new Muppet. Now it will debut on October 9, 2019. On the NBC Nightly News.

0:02:47 William Moyers
Oh, a national debut!

0:02:48 Jerry Moe
A national debut. Yeah. And we have worked with Sesame Street on script development, on storyline. I mean I was actually on set. And William, that's like bucket stuff for—bucket list stuff for me.

0:03:02 William Moyers
Yeah. Of course. 'Course.

0:03:03 Jerry Moe
And was there when we filmed the first scene of this beautiful little girl with Elmo and Chris from Mr. Hooper's store. And we filmed this strong and courageous and powerful little girl talking about her mom's addiction for the first time in her life.

0:03:20 William Moyers
Incredible. Incredible. What was that like?

0:03:23 Jerry Moe
Oh it was amazing. It was amazing. I have never been on—I was on the set. I've never been in a room there were about 60 people there. All brilliant, passionate, folks that love kids. And they film the scene and then we talked about it.

0:03:38 William Moyers

0:03:39 Jerry Moe
And I said there's one thing that got missed, though. And this is the kind of collaboration and partnership we brought to the table.

0:03:44 William Moyers

0:03:46 Jerry Moe
Even though this little girl is good friends with Elmo. And likes Chris because Chris is a friend of this little girl's mom. When she was talking about it, what they failed to realize is that the first time a child talks about addiction in the family, even among people that she loves and adores, there's still that—there's that push/pull, there's that conflict. There's vulnerability in that maybe I'm betraying my mom and dad, maybe I'm betraying the family secret. So they filmed it again.

0:04:20 William Moyers

0:04:20 Jerry Moe
And the muppeteer was able to convey that sense of 'Geez, is this the right thing to do? How are they gonna respond? And oh, it was—it was precious, William. 'Cause that little Muppet girl went from being vulnerable and uncertain and as Elmo and Chris gave her positive reinforcement and validation, you could see the excitement grow in her. And it was just captured in a wonderful way.

0:04:48 William Moyers
Sesame Street has been around for decades. Why did it take until now for this collaboration to occur, for this awareness around the impact that addiction plays in families? Why only did it happen now?

0:05:07 Jerry Moe
Well, as Hazelden celebrates its 70th anniversary, for Sesame Street this is its 50th year.

0:05:13 William Moyers

0:05:14 Jerry Moe
And a few years back, the folks at Sesame Street really listened to their partners and began to introduce this concept of trauma. And how trauma impacts young kids. And so while Sesame Street was always around to teach social skills and colors and shapes and sizes and beginning of numbers, and letters of the alphabet, I think they realized a few years back especially that to be trauma informed and to really make sure that they look at this is as an issue that can really impede—

0:05:50 William Moyers
Mmm-hmm. Mmm-hmm.

0:05:50 Jerry Moe
A little child's growth and development. So they listened and they responded accordingly. One of the things that I love about what they did with the foster care initiative and the way that they framed things in such a child-friendly way is they call foster parents "For Now" parents.

0:06:09 William Moyers
For now parents.

0:06:10 Jerry Moe
So those are your parents for now. It doesn't mean you can't someday go back to your mom and dad.

0:06:15 William Moyers

0:06:15 Jerry Moe
And so always doing things in an incredibly sensitive way. And the connection what happened was Sesame Street in their research found an activity called The Seven Cs. And the activity had been used so many times they took on the bottom of the activity, they took out the copyright and who created the activity.

0:06:37 William Moyers

0:06:37 Jerry Moe
And so they went to Sis Wenger and said, 'Who did this?' And I said well you need to talk with Jerry Moe.

0:06:43 William Moyers

0:06:45 Jerry Moe
And they saw it and they loved it because it was so child-friendly. And it was so simple. So those first three Cs actually come from Al-Anon family groups. I didn't cause it. And I can't control it. And I can't cure it.

0:06:58 William Moyers

0:06:59 Jerry Moe
But in working with boys and girls all these years, what I realized after a while—sometimes it takes me a while to learn from the boys and girls. [Moyers chuckles] Is that those three Cs tell us what we can't do. But they don't necessarily provide children, even little ones, with a road map. And so those last four Cs. But I can help take care of myself. Some things I can do for me. Communicating feelings. So talking about how I feel with people. I feel safe. And I trust. Like a little Muppet girl talking to Elmo and Chris. Making healthy choices.

0:07:35 William Moyers

0:07:36 Jerry Moe
And celebrating me, celebrating all my beauty and goodness.

0:07:40 William Moyers
So turning it around to a positive.

0:07:43 Jerry Moe
Turning it around into a positive. And so, with Sesame Street, the Seven Cs is really the central activity that everything else is gonna be built around. So this little Muppet girl is gonna learn the Seven Cs. And struggle with some of them and learn and grow with the other ones. So she can teach you know little kids all around things that they can do for self-care even if a mom or a dad or a grandparent or an older brother or sister gets trapped by addiction.

0:08:15 William Moyers
You've been a national advocate—the national advocate I must add—for children and wellness in children despite addiction and trauma and mental illness in families. You've been the nation's number one advocate for many, many years now. When I first came to this field in 1996, I remember meeting you and knowing about you—

0:08:34 Jerry Moe
Sure. Yeah.

0:08:35 William Moyers
—And your legacy already. And that was a long time ago. And of course, you founded the Children's Program at the Betty Ford Center which is now expanding nationally. What is the impact you think that this relationship, this collaboration with Sesame Street, is gonna have on your work and on our colleagues' work, at the Children's Program at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation?

0:08:56 Jerry Moe
Oh it's funny, William. And much like you I believe 'cause I know you well. [Moyers smiles] So much of my time is spent on 'Okay, what's next?'

0:09:06 William Moyers

0:09:06 Jerry Moe
Where do I need to go next, what do we need to talk about next? What do we need to do? And honestly, it's only been in the last couple of months that I've realized how big this collaboration and partnership is with Sesame Street. You know Mrs. Ford would always say to me pick your—pick your partners wisely. [Moyers chuckles] Because they say so much about who you are.

0:09:29 William Moyers

0:09:29 Jerry Moe
So I think the impact that this can have is huge. The one piece that I didn't share with you is there is going to be Sesame Street is going to have online resources just focused to this issue. So there'll be a section for parents and grandparents, but there'll be a section for teachers and social workers and therapists, Children's Protective Service workers, with ways that they can make a difference. Sesame Street had the idea, 'What about if we go find someone who has a substance use disorder and who's recovering?'

0:10:05 William Moyers
Mmm. Mmm-hmm.

0:10:05 Jerry Moe
And who now works with these boys and girls. And have them tell their story. And I listened to that and I said that's a great idea! But how about if we made that a person who grew up in a family with this disease. Never got help as a child, but then got help as an adult and is now teaching these boys and girls.

0:10:23 William Moyers

0:10:25 Jerry Moe
So our very own Cynthia Galaviz, who's a Supervisor of the Hazelden Betty Ford California Program, was interviewed. [Moyers nods happily] Sesame Street brought out their crew. It was in early June. And they filmed Cynthia. But they also filmed a little boy, seven years old, who was a veteran of the Children's Program—

0:10:43 William Moyers
Oh boy.

0:10:44 Jerry Moe
A card-carrying alumni of HBFF. [Moyers laughs heartily] Front and center. They interviewed the dad. That'll be on the site. And then we've written a number of articles. One of the articles he asked me to write for parents especially is in recovery, how do we build—how do we rebuild that trust?

0:11:02 William Moyers

0:11:03 Jerry Moe
How do we begin to heal that relationship that has gone through so much? As a result of this awful disease. And the thing I'm most excited about honestly is when you go to that section of their website. Which is almost finished. The development is just about there. There will be a direct link to the Hazelden Betty Ford Children's Program.

0:11:23 William Moyers

0:11:24 Jerry Moe
And so my hope is so many other boys and girls of all ages are going to get help. And that more adults—professionals and family members—look to us at the Hazelden Betty Ford Children's Program as the go-to resource.

0:11:40 William Moyers
And what will happen when a child or a parent at home is watching Sesame Street and sees this connection and reaches out to the website but they can't make that trip out to the Children's Program? What about resources in their own community? How will we make sure that they still get help even if they can't get to the Children's Program?

0:11:58 Jerry Moe
Sure! And today, our Children's Program at Hazelden Betty Ford is in California at the Betty Ford Center.

0:12:05 William Moyers
Right. Where it started.

0:12:05 Jerry Moe
It's in Denver. Where it started. Denver, Colorado. But now we're in the Twin Cities.

0:12:09 William Moyers

0:12:10 Jerry Moe
We're in Minnesota. And we have been in Center City. We'll have a program in Plymouth that is beginning.

0:12:17 William Moyers
Suburban Minneapolis.

0:12:17 Jerry Moe
But, we'll also be in St. Paul. So we wanna bring this program all over the place. But what we believe and what the research and evaluation of our program tells us—and it's a great program—but like all programs of recovery, continuing care is the crucial bit. And so we pretty much have resources in virtually every community across the nation that we would refer parents or grandparents or children to. So if we've got a call from someone let's say from Birmingham, Alabama—

0:12:49 William Moyers

0:12:49 Jerry Moe
—We know of a program much closer to home. We know of therapists that are close by. I mean if you think about it, William, we're talking almost one out of every three kids in the United States today.

0:13:01 William Moyers
One out of every three.

0:13:02 Jerry Moe
Almost one out of every three. And the irony is so many of them believe they're the only one.

0:13:07 William Moyers

0:13:07 Jerry Moe
And so we need more programming. All across the United States. And Dr. Delisi who works, you know, through publishing through our Professional Education Solutions, maybe the Children's Program will begin to interface. And we can go out to places like Ohio.

0:13:26 William Moyers

0:13:26 Jerry Moe
And Kentucky. Where we really know that the opioid heroin epidemic is so huge—

0:13:32 William Moyers
Mmm-hmm. Mmm-hmm.

0:13:32 Jerry Moe
And begin to train other people so they can do it right in their local communities.

0:13:36 William Moyers
Collaboration, that's what it's all about.

0:13:37 Jerry Moe
Collaboration is always the key.

0:13:40 William Moyers
Collaboration with Sesame Street and the Children's Program at Hazelden Betty Ford. Collaboration with other treatment providers. Collaboration in communities.

0:13:48 Jerry Moe
And when you look at our brand new Strategic Plan 2020—

0:13:52 William Moyers

0:13:52 Jerry Moe
So much of it is based on partnership and collaboration.

0:13:55 William Moyers
It sure is. [nodding]

0:13:55 Jerry Moe
And I'm so excited about that.

0:13:58 William Moyers
So am I, Jerry. Thank you so much for bringing your passion, your steadfast commitment, and your clinical expertise to really our most vulnerable—

0:14:07 Jerry Moe

0:14:08 William Moyers
—People in this country the next generation. And for helping to strengthen them we thank you for being with us today. Jerry Moe, the Executive Director of the National Children's Program at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation talking about the collaboration with Sesame Street. I'm your host, William Moyers, and on behalf of Lisa Stangl and all of us at Hazelden Betty Ford, thank you for joining us and we'll see you again on another edition of Let's Talk.

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