With an estimated 2.3 million Americans behind bars, the U.S. incarcerates a larger percentage of its population than any other nation on Earth. As a result, one out of every 28 children grows up with a parent in jail—an average of one child per classroom.
These numbers are the reason why Sesame Workshop has created Alex the Muppet, the first Sesame character to have a father in prison. He’s an average kid who has some extra baggage in life and is struggling to cope.
Alex appears in a bilingual toolkit of videos, a mobile app, and a storybook intended for young kids, in addition to materials for caregivers, as a way to help children cope with the emotions that come from a situation they may be too young to fully grasp. Starting with a one-year pilot project launched in June, Sesame Street is publicizing the materials and program to government agencies, NGOs, schools and other organizations in 10 states that work with incarcerated individuals and their families.
This isn’t the first time Sesame Workshop is trying to help kids cope with "tough to talk about topics," says Lynn Chwatsky, Sesame Workshop’s vice president for initiatives, partnerships, and community engagement. In 2005, Sesame Street created resources to help kids cope with parents deployed overseas in America’s wars. Later, it went on to create tools for the times when those parents came back physically or mentally injured—or didn't come back at all.
The work prompted a discussion about how to expand the military program to other ills of modern society. "We took a step back. This is basically resilience work. We asked ourselves, how else do you help children and the adults in their lives get through tough transitions?" In late 2012, it launched a kit for kids whose parents were getting divorced. And now, incarcerated parents.
Chwatsky says that parents and caregivers often struggle to communicate with their kids about prison. Children may feel ashamed or abandoned or angry about their incarcerated parent and blame themselves.
To Chwatsky, success of the program will come in the form of stories like one from a community event in June that Sesame Workshop held on Rikers Island, the main jail complex for New York City. A mom attended who had never taken her son to visit his father in jail because she thought it wasn’t a good idea. "When she heard that Sesame Street was coming, and that Sesame Street had resources, she decided to take him," says Chwatsky. "The visit went really well. She saw how good it was keeping him connected to the child’s father...My guess is now she’s been there a couple of times with him since that visit."
Technology has made it much easier for Sesame Street to distribute resources since its first program in 2005 for kids in military families. Now, most families—even in lower-income communities—have access to the Internet.
In the three months since launch, Chwatsky says, the program’s partners have sent out more than 7.7 million newsletters that mention or distribute the materials, and the free app has been downloaded 2,466 times. The program’s home page has had 85,000 page views in two months.
At around the 12-month mark, Sesame Workshop and the project's outside funders will review the results of the 10-state pilot program to decide whether it should expand. Alex hasn’t and won’t ever likely appear on the iconic TV show, however—it’s just not the best way to reach the specific intended audience, says Chwatsky.