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The Muppets take East St. Louis

 
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7:00 A.M. EST October 24, 2011 | EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. (UMNS)



Brad Paisley, Elmo and Lily, a new character dealing with hunger, discuss the importance of helping others in need as part of Sesame Street’s primetime television special titled “Growing Hope Against Hunger.” A web-only photo by Gil Vaknin courtesy of the Sesame Workshop, © 2011.
Brad Paisley, Elmo and Lily, a new character dealing with hunger, discuss the importance of helping others in need as part of Sesame Street’s primetime television special titled “Growing Hope Against Hunger.” A web-only photo by Gil Vaknin courtesy of the Sesame Workshop, © 2011.

Jagged lines of 4- and 5-year-olds zigzagged into the room. Excitement rumbled through the tiny crowd as their widening eyes recognized the red and blue monsters surrounding the television.

On this Friday morning, “Sesame Street” had come to the children of the Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House, a United Methodist community center.

Thanks to the St. Louis Area Foodbank and a grant from Walmart, the children at the center viewed a screening of a primetime special of “Sesame Street,” titled “Growing Hope Against Hunger.” The special features celebrity guests Brad Paisley and Kimberly Williams Paisley and, of course, the Sesame Street Muppets, including a new Muppet named Lily, whose family doesn’t always have enough to eat.

Many of the children who watched Lily at the Oct. 14 screening could identify with her experience.

“Right now, 41 percent of our residents here in East St. Louis are living in poverty, and 20 percent are in extreme poverty,” said Aundrea Young, deputy director at the Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House. “That means 40 percent of our area children are going hungry. So this message by ‘Sesame Street’ is very close to us, very close to our hearts. We know a resolution will take a community effort, and I see the Lessie Bates Davis House playing a vital role.”



New Muppet character, Lily, deals with hunger. A web-only photo by Gil Vaknin courtesy of the Sesame Workshop, © 2011.
New Muppet character, Lily, deals with hunger. A web-only photo by Gil Vaknin courtesy of the Sesame Workshop, © 2011.

Lessons from Elmo and Lily

The one-hour special follows the familiar and beloved Muppets — Elmo, Rosita and Grover. Together, through song and humor, they help Lily realize that her family is not the only family that suffers from hunger. In fact, it is quite common for families to depend on food pantries and other resources. Lily plants the seed in her audience that communication can also help. “Talking about it with my parents made me feel a lot better,” she says.

Hunger may seem an unusual topic for the sunny TV show famed for teaching generations of children their ABCs and 123s. But in the troubled economy, many more American children are experiencing empty bellies. They need the food pantries that so many United Methodist congregations offer.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation reported in August that 2.4 million more children joined the ranks of the U.S. poor over the past decade. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture, nearly 17 million American children are “food insecure,” which means their access to food is limited or uncertain.

“By Lily coming out and talking about having to go to the food pantry, it makes our kids not feel so ashamed of having to reach out for help,” said Vera Jones, director of education and youth development at the Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House. “Plus, we want to make sure that if they need help and are not currently reaching out, that they feel comfortable enough to do so.”

Can you tell me how to get to a food pantry?

During the episode of “Growing Hope for Hunger,” Paisley began a song with words of “planting hope.” As the kids of the Neighborhood House clapped along, Paisley provided simple strategies on how anyone can lend a hand — by planting a garden, holding a food drive, donating food or even just by being a friend. The friends at the Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood go a few steps further.

At the Neighborhood House, Jones said, staff members are a resource for parents and their community. They have counselors on hand who can connect and transition parents to any assistance they may need.

“If we identify a family that may not be aware of the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program, or maybe they need food delivered from our food pantry, we help get them connected to those resources and will deliver food,” she said.

The mission work of the Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House began in the early 1900s with the support of the Rev. W.F. Fransee. During the past 10 years, Neighborhood House has continued to expand its programs and services to youth, families and the elderly.



Bethany Prange, communications coordinator at the St. Louis Foodbank, talks to children at the Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House in East St. Louis, Ill. A UMNS photo by Heather Kemper-Hussey.
Bethany Prange, communications coordinator at the St. Louis Foodbank, talks to children at the Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House in East St. Louis, Ill. A UMNS photo by Heather Kemper-Hussey. View in Photo Gallery

Programs today include day care, emergency services, community organizing and outreach, as well as youth services, including recreation, education and cultural enrichment. The Neighborhood House, which now has two locations in East St. Louis, also offers a wide range of comprehensive family support and family preservation services. The ministry is now a national mission institution supported by United Methodist Women.

Through the years, Fransee’s original commitment — “To try to see the face of Jesus Christ in every person who walks through the doors of the Neighborhood House” — continues.

“I think Lily is just perfect!” squealed 5-year-old Anastasia, as she twirled the yellow bracelet just given to her by the St. Louis Foodbank.

When asked why she thought Lily was so perfect, she looked up with bright eyes and exclaimed, “Because she’s just like me.”

*Kemper-Hussey is the director of communications at Morning Star Church, a United Methodist congregation in Dardenne Prairie, Mo.

News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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  • NMex 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    Really - 40% of the children in East St. Louis "are going hungry"?  What does "going hungry" mean?  Are they missing a meal a day?  Two meals a day?  Three meals a day?  Who defines what is enough food?  Stating 40% are "going hungry" seems to be an inflammatory statement meant to have headline impact on readers.  So Church - what are you going to do about it - go to puppet shows or get food out there.
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