By Dan Lewis
Nicole McClendon is the tour manager for the Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families, a free traveling USO tour created exclusively for troops and their families. As the tour prepares to celebrate visiting and entertaining more than 500k service members and their families, we asked Nicole to share some of the experiences she has had while traveling to military bases around the world with Elmo and friends.
Nicole, what made you decide that you wanted to be a part of the Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families? Do you have family in the military?
I have always admired the USO and what it has done for our troops all over the world. My grandmother was actually a “USO girl” during World War II, and I grew up listening to her stories, as well as those of my grandfathers and uncles that served in World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. The USO was always a bright spot in their service. I have an uncle who is now an award winning gourmet chef, and to this day, he rates all egg salad sandwiches by the delicious ones served by the USO that he enjoyed in Vietnam. I also have many childhood friends who served and continue to serve in the military.
That said, I have always wanted to find a way to express my gratitude to our troops stationed at home and around the world for the sacrifices they make every single day that allow me the freedoms that I enjoy as I travel our country and the world. This particular show is especially meaningful to me because I have many friends who grew up as military kids themselves, and they have often talked about how hard moving can be. This show is catered to today’s military kids, who are experiencing the same thing many of my closest friends did when they were young. It’s an ideal way for me to express my gratitude and give back to the folks who need it most.
How is this show special?
This show is special in so many ways. First, we bring the show right to the base so there’s no need for families to travel far. Second, Sesame Street is an American treasure that so many parents trust and grew-up with, and this show is an outgrowth of Sesame Workshop’s military families initiatives Talk, Listen, Connect. It’s fun, entertaining and hits on important topics that today’s military families face every day. Kids and parents dance and sing, but the show is also an icebreaker for parents to talk to their children about their feelings after the final curtain. And last, but not least, the partnership between Sesame Street and the USO just works. The USO has been lifting the spirits of troops and military families for more than 70 years, and is always by their side. Sesame Street knows kids. And when you put the two together – it is a perfect combination.
What is it like living on a bus for six or seven months at a time?
Living on a bus for six to seven months at a time is a great way to see the country. As we drive from place to place, we often watch the scenery rather than the television. After about a month, the novelty of eating out at different restaurants every night wears off a bit and we find ways to “cook” for ourselves. Care packages from home with such treats as home baked cookies go a long way, especially since Cookie Monster shares them with everyone on the bus. Just like our troops that are far away from home, a home cooked meal is often the highlight of wherever we are.
Do you feel like traveling from base to base, making new friends and then leaving provides you a glimpse into what it is like for military kids who have to move?
Traveling on this tour and being on the road certainly allows me a glimpse into what military life is like. Of course I have the benefit of being an adult and not having a parent in the military who happens to be deployed at the moment. We pack-up the show and move to the next military base every few days, so just as Katie says in the show, just when we feel settled in a place, maybe even just unpack our suitcase, it’s time to pack it all up on the bus and truck again and head down the road. Of course, traveling with Elmo by my side makes it a wee bit easier to make friends at each new base we go to!
What makes this whole experience worth it for you? Have you experienced any moments during the tour that made you think, wow, I’m part of something so much bigger?
Seeing the smiles on hundreds of kids and parents faces each day makes the experience more than worth it for me. When parents take pictures of their kids enjoying the show and tell their youngsters that the Sesame Street/USO show is for military families like us, it definitely resonates with me. When we bring the show to these bases, it means so much to the military families, and they tell us that every day. It’s wonderful to think that just be getting up in the morning and doing my job, I can help spread happiness from base to base.
Why is the 500K milestone worth celebrating?
Pausing for a moment to recognize that we will have visited and entertained more than 500k military family members is essential to celebrate. The fact that all these years, performances and bases later, this show is still something that military families show up for in droves and still enjoy attending, means that Sesame Street and the USO have succeeded in their mission of lifting the spirits of America’s troops and their families. If 500K military family members have seen the show, that means we’ve made that many military family members smile and know they are not alone. As smiles are contagious, we can only hope that the 500k visitors spread smiles to at least one other person, which would mean we’ve helped create almost a million more smiles and special moments amongst our military friends.
What’s the best thing about this experience for you?
There are so many things that I enjoy about this Sesame Street/USO Experience, but the thing that gives me the most warm fuzzies every single performance is seeing parents in uniform enjoying the show with their kids. Bringing families together is always a tremendous thing to witness.
What’s the coolest thing you have seen? The craziest?
In Fort Lee, VA, we had a 40-member volunteer detail for load-out that showed up early in order to watch the last show prior to helping us pack up happiness. Every single one of them got up on their feet and danced the Elmo slide. It was amazing! I haven’t seen a lot of crazy things. We tend to contain crazy, like the tornado warning at Dover Air Force Base, where several parents got alerts on their phone, but didn’t want the show to end due to crazy weather. Luckily, the venue was also the “Shelter In Place” location for the base, so the muppets didn’t miss a beat!
Is Elmo hard to work with off camera?
Most of the time I spend working with Elmo is actually off camera, and he is actually a joy to work with and be around. He’s always on time and ready for his shows, no matter if they interfere with naptime or not. Elmo is great about pacing himself too; so that he has all the energy he possibly can to dance, play with Katie and meet new military friends at every base.
I consider it an honor to do what I do and to be a part of the Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families. Now that I spread happiness from base to base, I don’t know if I could ever do anything else. Making military families happy makes me happy beyond my wildest dreams and I can’t thank them enough for everything they do for us.