April 12, 2012

By Graydon Gordian

Service is More than a Word: Sesame’s Carmen Osbahr on Military Families

Carmen Osbahr is a performer on Sesame Street. She is best known for her performance of Rosita, a Spanish-speaking monster who has appeared on Sesame Street since 1991. In addition to her work on the show, Carmen plays a major role in Sesame Workshop’s military families initiative. She and Kevin Clash, who performs Elmo, perform for the children of military families at USO shows both in the United States and abroad, making up just one part of the work we do with the USO. We recently sat down with Carmen to learn more about the work she does with the USO and how working with military families became so important to her.

To learn more about the work Sesame Workshop does with military families, click here.

Sesame Workshop: You recently came back from a USO tour. Tell me a bit about the work you’ve done with the USO in the past.

Carmen Osbahr: That was our second tour. The first one was in 2010. At the end of the year we went to Germany, where the USO took us to two military bases. It worked out so well that this time they took us to Guam and Hawaii. It was really cool.

SW: What age groups are you performing for? What are the performances like?

Carmen: The military bases have amazing schools. We go to the elementary schools and visit kids from preschool to second grade. We do a show that is very casual and personal. It’s Kevin [Clash] and me with the puppets on our hands. We sing songs and talk to the kids and bring them to the front. We tickle them and hug them and make them sing a song with us. We do four shows a day with 100 kids or a bit more at each show.

The kids see us working with the puppets on our hands. At the beginning they’re confused. Then after a few seconds they forget about us completely and they start interacting with the characters, which for me is the coolest thing. You disappear. It’s especially true for Elmo. It’s such a wonderful feeling. They talk to our characters like they know them. We go there and give a lot of love, but I love it because it’s like therapy for me. They love us.

SW: Tell me a bit more about the work Sesame Workshop does with military families.

Carmen: Sesame Workshop has been working with military families for six years now. We do a lot of outreach projects. When the war started, everyone was talking about the troops. But the troops have families. They have little kids. Nobody was talking about the families.

We did outreach kits on dealing with deployment, on coping with the changes, both physical and mental, and on grieving. When we started, the military was so thankful. They wanted more. We weren’t just helping the kids, we were helping the young parents too. It was helping in both ways.

SW: How is the Sesame Street/USO show different from other on-base entertainment?

Carmen: They always bring the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, comedians, or other celebrities. We were the first show to come in that was for the families. Kevin Clash [who performs as Elmo] and I were completely willing to go meet the kids and make it more personal.  They’ve been putting us in direct contact with military families. I have a personal relationship with the military. I feel like it is my mission to be there.

SW: Although you feel strongly about military families, you’re not originally from this country. Tell us how you first moved to the United States and why you chose to become an American citizen.

Carmen: I was hired by Jim Henson in 1989, and I was brought to this country with a work visa. I’ve been very lucky because I’ve been living in this wonderful country, but I never thought about changing my nationality. I’m a Mexican and I’m very proud of it. After 9/11, it got very personal. I started getting to know military families. I don’t think civilians can completely realize what they have to deal with. Not just the troops and servicemen and women but their families, their wives, their kids, their whole communities. “Service” is not just a word. They really serve this country in ways I didn’t realize. Growing up in Mexico, I never encountered anything like that.

For the first time I realized how amazing the families are and I said, “You want to know what, I’m going to become an American citizen.” They ask you, “Will you give your life for this country?” I was never able to answer that one, but after meeting the military families I was able to say yes. If my son in the future wants to be part of the military, I would be more than honored. And I will be ready too. I will be there for him. I see what the families do.

In a way I wish my son would have that kind of experience, the kind of experience those people have. When they [the service members] go away, they have to relate to the person next to them. Every time I go away with Kevin on these trips, I learn so much from the servicemembers. I admire them more and more.

SW: How does your work with military families affect your understanding of Sesame Workshop’s mission?

Carmen: It’s not just my work. I think that the mission of Sesame Workshop, especially our work with the military families, is an incredible mission. Everybody should be proud of what the Workshop and its people are doing. We’re just the performers. We’re the lucky ones. But the day-to-day workers at the Workshop are the ones doing this. It’s teamwork and I love it. I love that Sesame Workshop has this kind of mission. It’s not just the Sesame Street show. Sesame has these outreach projects and it’s wonderful to be part of them.

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