Sesame Street has a history of tackling big issues.

Last week, they launched a new short film to help kids going through tough times when their parents are struggling with addiction.

Sesame Street has a program called Sesame Street in Communities, which is provided to kids, teachers and parents. It includes educational materials that cover issues like divorce, what happens when parents go to jail, and foster care. Now, they also have a curriculum to help children whose parents are suffering from substance use disorder.

Listen to an interview with filmmaker Elaine McMillion Sheldon, who helped make the new Sesame Street film about Salia Woodbury.

There’s a new Muppet, called Karli. 

And there are also two new short films, one for children, and one for providers, including therapists, teachers and social workers.

In the video for children, Karli introduces us to a real-life girl, 10-year-old Salia Woodbury. “When I was little, my mom and dad had to leave and I had to stay with grandma and grandpa,” Woodbury explains in the film. “My parents were struggling through a bad time with addiction. They had to go to a place to help them feel better. Addiction is a sickness. Addiction is getting too attracted to something, so you keep doing it over and over again. It makes people feel like they need drugs and alcohol to feel okay and they can’t stop doing it, and they aren’t acting like themselves. They were gone for 60 days, but it felt like 60 years.”

Both of the films about parental addiction are by three West Virginia filmmakers, Academy Award Nominated Elaine McMillion Sheldon, her husband Curren Sheldon, and Molly Born.

Woodbury family with filmmakers Elaine Sheldon and Molly Born. Photo: Courtesy Curren Sheldon

West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Roxy Todd sat down with McMillion Sheldon to learn more.

RT: In this clip, we heard Salia talking about her parents’ struggle, and I really love her definition. She’s so articulate. Tell me, how did you all find Salia? And how did she work on that definition and her story, and telling her story so beautifully?

EMS: There’s plenty of families in recovery, but it was a challenge to find a family that had a kid that could really articulate what they had been going through. And we emailed a lot of people that had done community screenings for Heroin(e) and Recovery Boys, our films about the opioid crisis, because we figured they might know families. I was giving a talk at a recovery conference. And at the end of that talk, I said, ‘If there’s anyone here in this room that knows a family that might be interested in talking about the recovery process from the kid’s perspective, which is a new way to think about it, please let me know.’ And that was in San Diego. And about three hours later, I got an email from Salia’s mother, who sent me an interview that she and Sylvia had already done before in the past.

Salia has been a big part of her mom and dad’s recovery. She actually went to rehab with her mom, and she was little when it all started. There was a program in California that her mother went through after the first round of treatment; she went to this inpatient treatment where mothers could actually bring their children. And so, Salia learned a lot about what was going on and the Woodbury’s are a great example of being transparent with your kids about what’s going.

Because I think a lot of kids are confused, and we think because they’re children, that they’re not picking up on things, but they absorb everything. And without the proper context and language and understanding, they often can blame themselves, think that their actions caused the strife within the family and it’s important to have little girls like Salia really articulating addiction in a child-centric way. Sesame Street [staff] were on scene with us when we were doing the interviews with her. And they talked to her about what she thought addiction was, and helped her sort of articulate what she ended up saying. And it’s from her mouth, and it’s brilliant. We don’t talk to kids enough, and who better to talk to kids than a 10-year-old kid.

RT: As a storyteller, I always wrestle with how much of a child’s story should we tell, especially for these things that have a stigma attached to them, like addiction. What did you guys discuss with Sesame Street about using someone’s face in this way, knowing that the story will follow them for decades?

EMS: Well, I think we chose a family that was very comfortable. It was their decision to be very forthright about their experience. And so that was first. The point was to find a family that was comfortable with that. There’s a difference between showing a child in a really vulnerable situation, like in the throes of something. If we were filming an emergency scene of an overdose and showing a child in that scenario, I really struggle with that type of imagery, because that is a very negative thing that’s going to follow that child around, and they didn’t really have consent. Whereas, this is something of a teaching moment, you know, a kid’s opportunity to share their voice of hope. And I think for a story of hope to follow the family around, gives them more fuel for what they’re doing and allows them to share their story and helps decrease stigma.

RT: And when Salia’s mom was in recovery, her mom taught her meditation. And Salia was inspired to teach meditation to others. And in the video, she describes how that process really helped her through a tough time.

Salia Woodbury in a film from Sesame Street.

“I would get really angry when I was younger. Whenever she taught me about meditation, I just knew that I should just breathe, and then it would be better. I started to teach kids meditation when mom and me were at her treatment place. What meditation means to me is to be more peaceful and more aware of all your surroundings, and to help you relax and be able to breathe. It feels good to help other kids who are going through what I went through, taking another long breath, let it out slowly and feel even calmer. When you are ready, give yourself a big stretch and open your eyes. Kids and their moms need time to breathe and relax, because they’re stressed and maybe having big feelings.” —Salia Woodbury

RT: I mean, what an important and true message for all kids and moms, whether or not they’re going through addiction. Does Sesame Street have any plans to bring Salia’s story to the broadcast program?

EMS: The Woodbury family was brought to New York to film some one-on-ones with Karli, and those are on the Sesame Street in Communities YouTube page. There’s a ton of incredible resources on Sesame Street in Communities’ website and the YouTube page. And so, she’s with Karli, she teaches Karli how to meditate and how to breathe. And they’re actually bilingual programs too, which is really incredible. But one of the things Sesame wanted to do was, in addition to showing things like breathing and meditating, also really tangible, easy things, like teaching kids to journal about their feelings, or teaching kids to be okay with those big feelings and teaching them that it’s normal to have emotions and to feel sad and to feel happy. That’s all part of being a child. And furthermore, it’s all part of being an adult. And the adults that choose to numb those things and then no longer have that choice because they’re addicted. You know, numbing those emotions and the trauma and the pain is what we want to avoid kids to do in the future. So, you know, kids are at such a higher risk if they’re from a family that has addiction in the home, whether it’s current or previous.

And so it’s really important to teach them resilience and things like art therapy, journaling and meditating and being a good sister or brother by helping out around the family so that kids don’t blame themselves. And so they understand their role within the family. I think a lot of people are torn. You know, this is both a really happy day that Sesame Street has decided to announce this new Muppet, and have this incredible program. But it’s also very heartbreaking that we are at this point in the country where this is needed. And I understand that conflict, but ultimately think, you know, the situation is what it is. And we can sit back and allow children to be confused, and follow down the same path as their parents, or we can give them tools to understand the situation and, hopefully, lead better lives, have different outcomes, and that’s what’s most important.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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