Sesame Street Tackles America’s Opioid Crisis With New Muppet

Sara C Nelson

Sesame Street is tackling the American opioid crisis with a new character whose parents are battling addiction.

Karli, a bright green, yellow-haired friend of show stalwart Elmo, first joined the show as a puppet in foster care, but now viewers will learn why her mother had to go away for a while.

The creators of the show said they turned to the issue of addiction since data shows 5.7 million children under the age of 11 live in US households with a parent with substance use disorder.

Karli, voiced and manipulated by puppeteer Haley Jenkins, was joined by a young girl — 10-year-old Salia Woodbury, whose parents are in recovery.

Salia Woodbury, 10, whose parents are in recovery, with Sesame Street character Karli. Together they are addressing the issue of addiction 

“Hi, it’s me, Karli. I’m here with my friend Salia. Both of our parents have had the same problem — addiction,” Karli told the camera.

“My mum and dad told me that addiction is a sickness,” Salia said.

“Yeah, a sickness that makes people feel like they have to take drugs or drink alcohol to feel OK. My mum was having a hard time with addiction and I felt like my family was the only one going through it. But now I’ve met so many other kids like us. It makes me feel like we’re not alone,” the puppet continued.

“Right, we’re not alone,” Salia responded. “And it’s OK to open up to people about our feelings.”

In the segment, Karli and Salia each hold up hand-drawn pictures of flowers, with multiple petals representing “big feelings” — like anger, sadness and happiness. They also offer ways to feel better, including art and breathing exercises.

The segment leans on carefully considered language. Creators prefer “addiction” to “substance abuse” and “recovery” to “sobriety” because those terms are clearer to children.

Sesame Street, which began airing in 1969, has a long history of tackling topical issues in a way approachable to children. It’s had puppets with HIV, jailed parents and autism, explored homelessness, women’s rights and even girls singing about loving their hair.

“For everything we’ve done — from military families to homelessness — it’s all about how to make children free to talk and to give parents the tools to do just that. They tend to avoid it and it’s what they need more than anything,” said a spokesman.

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