Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris high-fives Elmo at a December 4 press conference to announce a new partnership with Sesame Street in Communities. (Ziggy Mack/High Ground News)

A clearly jubilant spirit drew applause and cheers as a Tuesday morning press conference cited Memphis as the newest location for theSesame Street in Communities (SSIC) initiative.

Local dignitaries, along with a Sesame Workshop representative, had words at the happy occasion. But the day was unmistakably owned by “Elmo.” Coveted star of stage and screen and known by children of all ages throughout the world, the furry red Sesame Street character was mobbed by a friendly horde of children and parent paparazzi with cell phones. Elmo responded in kind, hamming it up for his fans.

But the big news propelling Memphis into the national spotlight yesterday was its newly elevated status as a place where the most vulnerable, at-risk children will get a tremendous boost in early childhood learning.

Sesame Workshop, the educational component driving Sesame Street’s instructive content, announced a partner initiative with Porter-Leath and ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience) Awareness Foundation to support efforts of those organizations to nurture youngsters most affected by childhood trauma.

“You just mention the name ‘Sesame Street,’ and immediately, people start to smile. They just smile,” said Dr. Renee Wilson-Simmons, executive director of ACE Awareness Foundation.

“This initiative is going to mean so much to so many. Children experience so many forms of trauma: physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, neglect, loss of a parent through substance abuse, incarceration and even death,” she continued. “The partnership with Sesame Street will boost our work with parents and grandparents at the Universal Parenting Places (UPPs). We are thrilled.”

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris welcomed Sesame Street staff and characters, touting the county’s commitment to quality, pre-K education for every youngster, based on their individual need.

Sean Lee, President of Porter-Leath, lauded Sesame Workshop for its work in educating and entertaining children. He shared his own long-time connection to public broadcasting’s leading children’s program.

“I got my Elmo at age three, and I drug it around with me to an age I am now ashamed to admit to you right here today,” Lee smiled. “But we are excited about this partnership and what it’s going to mean for our children.”

Lee said Sesame Workshop materials will be used in three ways:
1) evidence-based materials to be implemented in all classes;
2) materials to send home, reinforcing the parent as a child’s first teacher; and
3) professional development tools for training teachers.

Lee praised the initiative for helping Porter-Leath take another step forward in helping families and children rise up and be successful.

Dr. Jeanette Betancourt, Senior Vice-President of U.S. Social Impact for Sesame Workshop, said working with providers like ACE Awareness Foundation and Porter-Leath will “together, build a circle of care around all children – particularly the most vulnerable.”

“We are thrilled to bring Sesame Street in Communities to Memphis, a city dedicated to helping its youngest residents get a strong and healthy start in life,” she added.
In later comments to The New Tri-State Defender, Betancourt explained why Sesame Workshop chose Memphis.

“I get asked that a lot. People want to know what singled their city out of all the others,” she said. “We chose Memphis because of the strong network of parents, educators, community leaders, and organizations already doing significant work in providing quality education for young children. We want to partner with the people of Memphis and Shelby County to enhance the great work that is already being done.”

Other SSIC partners include Guilford County, North Carolina; Los Angeles; Kansas City, Mo.; Transylvania County, North Carolina, and the Mississippi Delta.

On Friday, Dec. 7, Elmo and Cookie Monster will join the Porter-Leath’s Annual Toy Truck event for hugs and photos, from 2-6 p.m., at the Poplar Collection site, 4615 Poplar Avenue.

All SSIC resources are available free of charge in both English and Spanish at: sesamestreetincommunities.org.