Sesame Street partners with Memphis nonprofits to reduce childhood trauma, improve early education

In 2019, Sesame Street will celebrate 50 years of entertaining and educating children around the world, but its influence stretches far beyond television programming — and has reached Memphis through partnerships with Porter-Leath and the ACE Awareness Foundation.

Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit behind the show, provides to organizations in 150 countries educational media and tools to improve literacy, emotional well-being, health and wellness, and respect and understanding. Sesame Street in Communities is their U.S.-based initiative to support early childhood education and social-emotional development by providing printed and web-based educational curriculums and professional development for educators, caregivers and organizations at the local level. It’s funded through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Joan Ganz Cooney Fund for Vulnerable Children.

At a December 4 press conference held at Porter-Leath’s Early Childhood Academy, SSIC announced Memphis as its newest partner city. Memphis is one of 35 communities SSIC will work with over the next five years. Porter-Leath and ACE Awareness Foundation will be the lead partners and will weave SSIC tools into their current work. The collaborators will evaluate existing programs, identify which SSIC resources are best suited to address challenges and improve outcomes and identify the best ways to implement tools, trainings and strategies.

(L to R) Dr. Jeanette Betancourt with Sesame Workshop, Sean Lee with Porter-Leath, Dr. Renée Wilson-Simmons with ACE Awareness Foundation, Elmo, Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris, and Karen Harrell at a December 4 press conference announce Memphis' partnership with Sesame Street in Communities. (Ziggy Mack)

“[The SSIC partnership] really will enhance what we’re doing because it’s not new, it’s more — more ways to work with the parents and the children, more resources to provide to the parent and also to point them to things that they can access directly to do additional work,” said Dr. Renée Wilson-Simmons, executive director of Memphis-based ACE Awareness Foundation, in an interview with High Ground News.

In addition to improving access and quality of early childhood education, the new partnership helps educators and caregivers prevent and respond to adverse childhood experiences for improved social-emotional growth. ACEs are traumatic events like abuse, homelessness, or the loss of a parent through death or incarceration. They can contribute to poor mental and physical health, increased criminality, substance abuse and low educational attainment in adulthood, and the partners say the key to mitigating their effects is proper support from adults.

“ACEs aren’t destiny. You might have six ACEs, but that’s not your destiny if, in fact, you have support,” said Wilson-Simmons.

ACE Awareness Foundation will use the SSIC curriculum at its four Universal Parenting Centers, which Wilson-Simmons described as judgment-free zones that offer critical supports for caregivers like counseling, education, discussion groups and opportunities for bonding.

The centers are located inside Baptist Memorial Hospital for Women in East Memphis, Knowledge Quest in South Memphis, Perea Preschool in Klondike-Smokey City, and Christ Community Health Services in Raleigh. They also have a partnership with Leland Medical Clinic in Leland, Miss., which will also receive support from SSIC.

Porter-Leath will embed SSIC resources in its professional development trainings for its more than 160 staff members and in its parent and youth programs, including its 14 Head Start and Early Head Start locations and its Early Childhood Academy. They’ll also create safe and comfortable spaces inside several existing locations designed to help children process their feelings during stressful experiences.

“We serve nearly 50,000 children and their families each year with a goal to reduce poverty and improve opportunity in Memphis and Shelby County for all young children,” said Mary Braddock, a spokesperson for Porter-Leath.

A parent registers for a workshop and gift basket raffle from Sesame Street in Communities at a December 4 press conference held at the Porter-Leath's Early Childhood Academy. (Ziggy Mack)

“Although Porter-Leath has served children and families for over 165 years, we know that there is always something new to learn about caring for children. This partnership contributes to growth by strengthening our development training for parents and early childhood educators and bolstering our Early Head Start’s focus on social-emotional development.”

At the press conference, Dr. Jeanette Betancourt, senior vice president of U.S. social impact for Sesame Workshop, said Memphis was chosen because of the many partners like Porter-Leath, ACE Awareness Foundation, Shelby County Schools and county government who are already actively working to improve early education and social-emotional learning in the Mid-South.

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris said his administration is working with the City of Memphis, Shelby County Schools and other partners to ensure every child in the county has access to early childhood education regardless of income and that this partnership with SSIC will help towards that goal. He also said 4,000 kids between 12 and 17 years of age interact with the Memphis and Shelby County juvenile justice system each year, and early intervention is a critical component to reducing that number.

Related: "County-wide pre-K initiative seeks to level the playing field for early childhood education"

“A lot of our kids, unfortunately, are really facing some challenges at home in terms of poverty but also in terms of traumas and adverse childhood experiences,” said Harris.

“Sometimes you need a way for those families, those kids, to bridge that gap, and I think one of those real ways that you can easily brighten a day, bring out a smile and establish a trust is through the characters that we all know ...The show always has a very powerful lesson and I think it communicates in a way that’s fun, in a way that’s easy to understand for kids and adults alike.”

To celebrate the new partnership, Sesame Workshop is hosting activities for kids and caregivers, including visits with Elmo and Cookie Monster, at all four Universal Parenting Place locations in Memphis and at 4615 Poplar Avenue on December 7 from 2 to 6 p.m. as part of Porter-Leath’s annual Toy Truck donation drive.

Support for this story was provided in part by the Urban Child Institute; it is one article in a series highlighting the impact and importance of early childhood education.  The Urban Child Institute focuses its grantmaking, advocacy and community support on kindergarten readiness and third-grade literacy in an effort to improve the education, health and well-being of children and families in Shelby County.

Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and graduate of the University of Memphis. Cole's worked locally as a researcher and community engagement strategist and began contributing to High Ground in Jan 2017. 
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