Rochelle Haynes with her friend Cookie Monster. Submitted photo

Parents and child care providers in Central Iowa have a new, well-known partner to help their children build a good foundation of social-emotional well-being, through learning resources delivered by huggable fuzzy characters like Elmo, Big Bird and other familiar characters of the beloved children’s program "Sesame Street." 

Through a $500,000 grant to Sesame Workshop from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, a coalition of child health advocates known as the Iowa Alliance for Healthy Kids is bringing the Sesame Street in Communities initiative to Greater Des Moines. The alliance plans to roll out the program in Central Iowa in 2021 and expand it statewide within the next two years. 

Sesame Street in Communities, an initiative of the Sesame Workshop, which produces "Sesame Street," is an online resource content hub for children and families that also offers professional development tools for child care providers.  

The initiative seeks “to reach vulnerable children and families through an online resource content hub filled with videos, articles, games and tips to help parents with ABCs, 123s, healthy habits, and also how to help kids manage through difficult times and dealing with tough topics.” 

The goal of the initiative is to raise public awareness of the importance of kids’ social and emotional health, recognizing that helping children to build skills like managing emotions, building good relationships and making good choices is vital to their overall health. 

Currently, 11 other cities across the United States, among them Kansas City, Memphis, Baltimore, Los Angeles and Miami, are also partnering with Sesame Street in Communities to coordinate local programs. Central Iowa has the distinction of being the first regional model for a Sesame Street in Communities partnership, said Rochelle Haynes, vice president of the U.S. social impact team of Sesame Workshop. 

Haynes was part of a virtual soft rollout of the venture hosted on Friday by the alliance. 

“What you have in common with all of these communities is you are all proactively working to meet the needs of young children,” Haynes said, “and are aware more than ever of the problems facing young children, from food insecurity, homelessness, abuse and neglect. You are all aware of how adverse childhood experiences — if unaddressed — have long-term impacts on development.” 

Collectively, existing partners in those cities have raised more than $7 million to supplement local on-the-ground programs that have been embedded at child care centers, schools, clinics and other locations. Partners have also created “tool kits” that families can pick up at locations such as libraries with hands-on materials to supplement the online programs. 

Suzanne Mineck, president of Mid-Iowa Health Foundation, learned about Sesame Street in Communities about two years ago when she was attending a conference, and was inspired by its model for working with kids. As a result, Iowa Alliance for Healthy Kids came together in fall 2019 with the goal of working with Sesame Street in Communities on supporting the social-emotional development of children in Central Iowa and across the state. 

The pandemic that has gripped the country over much of 2020 has heightened the need for the program, Mineck said during the videoconference. 

“We know this cannot fall solely on parents and caregivers,” she said. “We all must wrap around our families and support a strong foundation for all our kids. Sesame Street has a way of talking about hard times — how to use resources so that we can meet these challenges head-on.” 

Teree Caldwell-Johnson, CEO of Oakridge Neighborhood in Des Moines, spoke about the need for the program from the perspective of the nonprofit she leads. Oakridge Neighborhood operates Oak Academy Preschool, serving nearly 1,200 children in the metro. 

“We believe that it’s critical to integrate culturally relevant practices that address the needs of the whole child in the work that we do here in Oak Academy,” she said. “That includes fostering social and emotional well-being. I believe that’s why this initiative is so important, and bottom line, that’s what this initiative is all about. It’s about supporting our kids and helping them grow in the best ways possible.” 

Caldwell-Johnson compared the initiative to building a house. 

“I often think that just like we cannot build our own house, we cannot build our own well-being,” she said. “It requires a team, and tools, and the right materials. So this initiative will really be about how we prepare our teams to surround our children with the right tools to equip themselves as they begin to build and foster their bright and incredible futures.” 

A research survey conducted by Fluent Research over the summer for the alliance found that Greater Des Moines parents believe that social-emotional development is important, but they acknowledged that overall the community is much less aware of its importance to healthy development. 

Further, parents are struggling to find resources for their children, and they don’t have a lot of time to find ways that can help make a difference, said Sarah Welch, coordinator of Iowa Alliance for Healthy Kids. 

“We’re hearing from so many parents and providers about how worried they are about their children’s social and emotional well-being because of COVID-19, so this is such an important time for this initiative,” she said. 

By the end of the year, the alliance plans to release a tool kit with talking points that supporters and advocates can use to begin spreading the message about social-emotional well-being, Welch said. A group of 12 trainers will be trained by Sesame Street in Communities in November, with training by those local trainers to providers beginning early next year. A town hall event to provide more information is being planned for January. 

More information about Iowa Alliance for Healthy Kids can be found on its website, including a Get Involved tab in which providers can indicate an interest in training. Resources on emotional-social well-being for child care providers and parents are also available now on the Sesame Street in Communities website, which has a portal page for Greater Des Moines.