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13 Sesame Street Characters Making a Difference in the World

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Sesame Street is all about teaching important life lessons to kids. But some of our favorite Muppets on the show have stepped up to deal with major social issues. Here's a collection of Muppets who taught kids about the issues facing our world today.

1. Cookie Monster - Handwashing and Healthy Eating

In April, Cookie Monster emphasized the importance of handwashing as part of an effort to promote sanitation work around the world. (2.5 billion people don't have access to toilets!) He granted an interview on the subject, conducted by the Impatient Optimists blog. Here's a snippet:

Impatient Optimists: We know you’re a cookie enthusiast. Can you tell us your cookie eating ritual?

Cookie Monster: Me cookie eating reputation precedes me. Of course me have ritual! First me wash hands. This part very important because it help keep me healthy. Me not sure exactly how long me wash, but me sing the ABCs slowly and when me get to Z, it time to rinse and then look out, om nom nom nom nom. Me also like to share me cookies with Elmo and Big Bird. Little known secret, a birdseed cookie is delicious.

Cookie Monster also famously sang in 2005 that "A Cookie is a Sometimes Food" in an effort to combat obesity. (In the song, various fruits are declared "anytime foods.") In this video, he struggles with the choice between fresh fruit and a delicious cookie:

Cookie Monster also tackled food issues with a 90s-style rap about healthy eating, complete with gold chains. "Nutrition, it really hip!" Me love it.

2. Captain Vegetable - Eating Vegetables

While Cookie Monster likes tolerates fruit, Sesame Street devotes an entire character to vegetables—the superhero Captain Vegetable. Based "somewhere in New Jersey," Captain Vegetable was first voiced by Jim Henson (!) in this 1982 song promoting healthy eating:

In 2002, the Captain Vegetable superhero franchise was rebooted, now starring John Leguizamo as a live-action Captain Vegetable, complete with green cape and a bandolier of veggies!

3. Kami - Living With HIV

Takalani Sesame is the South African version of Sesame Street. It features Kami, the HIV-positive Muppet. The name Kami comes from the Tswana word for "acceptance," and Kami has become a global figure in HIV awareness campaigns. Kami emphasizes that it's possible to live with HIV, and those who don't suffer from HIV should be accepting (and unafraid) of those who do. She has made appearances with Oprah Winfrey, Laura Bush, Desmond Tutu, and Whoopi Goldberg. Oh yeah, and she shared a hug with Bill Clinton in this adorable UNICEF video:

For more on Kami, check out her Muppet Wiki page, which includes a photo of the time she smooched Whoopi Goldberg at the U.N.!

4. Big Bird - Dealing With Death

Big Bird has had a hand (and a wing) in lots of social issues on Sesame Street, but the most touching was his segment on dealing with death, after the death of Will Lee, who played Mr. Hooper, in 1982. On the show, Mr. Hooper's death taught Big Bird an important lesson. Have a hanky ready:

The episode dealing with Mr. Hooper's death was shown almost a year after Lee's death. It aired on Thanksgiving, 1983, as producers expected many adults would be around over the holiday to help kids process the loss. The episode was eventually turned into a book called I'll Miss You, Mr. Hooper.

5. Lily - Food Insecurity

Lily is a "food insecure" Muppet, who sometimes goes hungry because of her family's financial situation. She first appeared in 2011 on a Sesame Street episode entitled "Growing Hope Against Hunger." Lily is the first character on the show to suffer from food insecurity, and highlights solutions to the problem, such as school lunch programs and food pantries. Here's a highlight reel from Lily's first episode:

6. Pino - Bullying

Pino learns what it means to be a bully (and how to share) in the song "Don't Be a Bully," a take-off on the classic song "Wooly Bully."

Sesame Street also tackled the bullying issue with a special episode featuring Big Bird, among others. Here's Big Bird on CNN talking about the issue:

(Trivia note: the American Pino, a brownish monster, shouldn't be confused with Pino the big blue bird, from Sesamstraat, the Dutch version of Sesame Street.)

7. Grover - Cultural Differences

Global Grover travels the world, learning about different cultures. Here are a few of his greatest hits!

In Nicaragua, Grover tells us about a boy who makes mud bricks. "It is I, your furry blue globe-trotting monster!"

Here he is explaining how kids get to school in various places around the world:

And here he is in Bangladesh, in a slightly squished video:

8. Zobi - Malaria

Zobi appears on the Nigerian version of Sesame Street, teaching kids about malaria. In one sketch, he becomes entangled in a mosquito-protection bed net. He also has a (non-malaria-related) obsession with yams. Here's Zobi, with Kami, in a teacher training video:

9. Ronnie Trash - Recycling

Ronnie Trash (inspired by Johnny Cash) delivers a pro-recycling message in this medley of "I Walk The Line" and "Ring of Fire," rewritten to deal with issues of trash:

Indeed, Johnny Cash himself was on Sesame Street several times. (Check out the full list at the Muppet Wiki!)

10. Aristotle - Blindness

Aristotle is a blind Muppet. In this clip, Aristotle teaches Big Bird about reading in Braille:

11. Alex - Parental Incarceration

In June, Sesame Street introduced Alex, a Muppet whose father is in prison. Alex is there to reach out to the estimated 2.7 million U.S. kids with a parent who's incarcerated. Here's a clip:

12. Kermit the Frog - Environmentalism

Although we usually think about Kermit the Frog as being a Muppet Show Muppet, he was an original Muppet character on Sesame Street. He was named UNICEF Spokesfrog in 1980 after Jim Henson began working with the United Nations Children's Fund, and headed up a Halloween drive that year. (Check out an amazing photo of Henson, Kermit, kids, and those famous 1980s UNICEF collection boxes.) Kermit was also awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Amphibious Letters from Southampton College, New York, where he gave a commencement speech emphasizing environmentalism.

Kermit also participated in a promotional video, along with the Prince of Wales, Robin Williams, Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, the Dalai Lama, and others, for The Prince's Rainforests Project. (If you just want the Kermit content, he shows up at the end.)

13. Snuffleupagus - Divorce

Snuffy and the mysterious Mount Snuffleupagus. Image via YouTube / higman12.

A bit of bonus trivia! Sesame Street producers actually shot an entire episode in which Snuffy's parents got divorced. Unfortunately, the results were deemed too grim, and the episode never aired. Here's a quote from cast member Bob McGrath, via The Muppet Wiki:

... They wrote a whole show and taped it, and it was just devastating for test groups of kids. So they just threw the whole thing in the garbage and never tried it again. It was just too difficult a concept for a 3-year-old.

The Muppet Wiki page about the Snuffy divorce is amazing. While the Snuffy episode remains in the vault, there is at least one oblique mention of divorce on Sesame Street—in Jim Henson's last "News Flash" performance as Kermit on Sesame Street, Kermit interviews a bird whose parents now live in separate trees.

To address the divorce issue, the creators of Sesame Street made Abby Cadabby, a character introduced in 2006, the daughter of divorced parents. She wasn't built specifically to teach about divorce, the way Alex is built specifically to teach about incarceration; instead, divorce is just a part of her life. In 2012, Sesame Street created a whole resource kit to help teach kids about divorce. Abby Cadabby features prominently in the kit. Here’s a video from it:

This list just scratches the surface of the issues Sesame Street tackles. For even more, check out the Sesame Workshop Initiatives page.

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YouTube / thelostdisney
5 Fun Facts About Health, Toilets, Muppets, and Presidents
YouTube / thelostdisney
YouTube / thelostdisney

We've been running a series about global health since August 2013. Here are five of the most interesting facts we've uncovered since then.

1. There is a "World Toilet Organization" Run By "Mr. Toilet"

Jack Sim goes by "Mr. Toilet." He left the business world to found the WTO—no, not that one, the World Toilet Organization—in 2001. Starting that year, Mr. Toilet declared November 19 "World Toilet Day," and since then has been on a mission to bring sanitation to people in developing countries.

I urge you to drop what you're doing and watch this short video about Mr. Toilet. Yes, he says "shit" a lot. And it's awesome.

In addition to founding the World Toilet Organization and establishing World Toilet Day, Mr. Toilet is working to convince the world to abandon flush toilets, because they waste water. Sim reminds us that flush toilets waste up to 22 liters of water every day. Something to think about next time you debate whether to "let it mellow."

Learn more in 5 Reasons World Toilet Day is Awesome.

2. The Seven Dwarfs Helped Fight Malaria

Disney made an animated film in 1943 called The Winged Scourge featuring the Seven Dwarfs. It was the first in a series of animated propaganda shorts dealing with public health issues, and the only to feature established Disney characters. I'll summarize this ten-minute video for you: mosquitoes transmit malaria, malaria is bad, so let's kill mosquitoes. With help from dwarves. (Snow White doesn't make an appearance.)

Note that around 0:45 in the video, we see that malaria is still established in the United States in the world map. Malaria wasn't eliminated in the U.S. until 1951.

Read more in 8 Surprising Facts About Malaria.

3. George Washington Had Tremendous Health Problems

"Life of George Washington—The Christian Death" by Junius Brutus Stearns, courtesy of the Library of Congress

George Washington is likely the founding father to have suffered from the widest variety of awful diseases, so let's review some of the worst things that happened to him. As a young man, Washington traveled to Barbados with his brother Lawrence in 1751, in an attempt to cure Lawrence of his TB with fresh air. The attempted cure failed, and George became infected with TB in the process. He also managed to pick up smallpox while in Barbados.

George Washington returned from Barbados only to come down with pleurisy, while his brother Lawrence died from TB. George also contracted malaria (see above), and later suffered from dysentery. He died at age 67 while being treated for a throat infection. The treatment involved bleeding him (32 ounces of blood removed—probably what actually killed him), making him gargle vinegar, inducing vomiting, and nearly suffocating him with a molasses/butter/vinegar potion.

Washington's struggle with disease was so epic that PBS produced an entire article describing and discussing his medical problems and how they might have been solved today. (They noted that he also suffered from diphtheria, quinsy, a carbuncle, pneumonia, and epiglottitis. Ouch. Oh yeah, and he lost his teeth to infection and decay, leaving him with just one remaining tooth upon inauguration as president. He lost that one too.)

Check our the history of presidential pain in 6 Awful Illnesses Suffered By US Presidents.

4. Cookie Monster Promotes Handwashing and Healthy Eating

In April 2013, Cookie Monster emphasized the importance of handwashing as part of an effort to promote sanitation work around the world. (2.5 billion people don't have access to toilets!) He granted an interview on the subject, conducted by the Impatient Optimists blog. Here's a snippet:

Impatient Optimists: We know you’re a cookie enthusiast. Can you tell us your cookie eating ritual?

Cookie Monster: Me cookie eating reputation precedes me. Of course me have ritual! First me wash hands. This part very important because it help keep me healthy. Me not sure exactly how long me wash, but me sing the ABCs slowly and when me get to Z, it time to rinse and then look out, om nom nom nom nom. Me also like to share me cookies with Elmo and Big Bird. Little known secret, a birdseed cookie is delicious.

Cookie Monster also famously sang in 2005 that "A Cookie is a Sometimes Food" in an effort to combat obesity. (In the song, various fruits are declared "anytime foods.") In this video, he struggles with the choice between fresh fruit and a delicious cookie:

Cookie Monster also tackled food issues with a 90s-style rap about healthy eating, complete with gold chains. "Nutrition, it really hip!" Me love it.

Read more in 13 Sesame Street Muppets That Make a Difference.

5. One Man Created Eight of the Most Common Vaccines

Image courtesy of Images from the History of Medicine

Although most people have never heard of him, Maurice Hilleman developed dozens of vaccines, including eight vaccines that you may have received. Hilleman developed vaccines for chickenpox, Haemophilus influenzae bacteria, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, measles, meningitis, mumps, and pneumonia (among many others). His vaccines saved millions of lives, and I've received a bunch of them myself! His obituary read, in part (emphasis added):

"Hilleman is one of the true giants of science, medicine and public health in the 20th century," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

"One can say without hyperbole that Maurice has changed the world," he added.

... "If I had to name a person who has done more for the benefit of human health, with less recognition than anyone else, it would be Maurice Hilleman," Gallo said six years ago. "Maurice should be recognized as the most successful vaccinologist in history."

His obituary is well worth a read, including colorful lines like: "'Montana blood runs very thick,' [Hilleman] said later, 'and chicken blood runs even thicker with me.'" (He grew up on a farm and worked with chickens quite a bit in developing vaccines.) His story is also told in the book Vaccinated: One Man's Quest to Defeat the World's Deadliest Diseases.

Read more in 5 Things You Might Not Know About Vaccines.

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YouTube / ONE
How Missed Calls Amplify Farmers' Voices
YouTube / ONE
YouTube / ONE

This week, Farm Radio International (FRI) announced the results of an innovative poll covering thousands of farmers. The biggest surprise was the way farmers voted: by calling a phone number and hanging up.

The survey was conducted in Tanzania, where smallholder farms (small family farms) make up around 75% of all farm production. FRI, an international radio service that partners with local stations, wanted to poll those farmers in order to help make their voices heard by the Tanzanian government. But how do you reach thousands of tiny farms spanning a whole country? In the case of Tanzania, the answer was radio talk shows and basic cell phones.

Photo courtesy of ONE / Do Agric

The Power of Radio Talk Shows and Cell Phones

Across Tanzania, there are radio stations broadcasting talk shows aimed at farmers. Those programs are already popular for the people the survey aimed to reach, so FRI partnered with five radio stations in different regions across the country. The local presenters added discussion segments to their programs dealing with the poll issues.

Radio broadcasters concluded the poll segments by asking yes/no questions, then giving out phone numbers that voters could dial into. But people generally don't want to waste their cell phone minutes on a poll, so a clever solution came into play: just call the number, then hang up. The missed call is logged, and that log constitutes a vote. This system is called "Beep to Vote," and it's free for voters because the missed call doesn't incur charges for using cell phone minutes. For yes/no questions, there was one phone number for "yes" and another for "no." A total of 8,891 smallholder farmers participated.

In addition to the "Beep to Vote" yes/no questions, the poll included a multiple-choice question that most voters responded to using SMS. Voters texted a single character ("1" for the first option, "2" for the second, and so on) to a specified phone number, and those results were tallied by computer. In addition to the SMS voting method, farmers could opt to make a voice call to an automated system, listen to the five options, and press a number to indicate their choice. 4,372 people responded to the multiple-choice question. The system was also able to send SMS reminders to voters in case they voted for one of the poll questions, but not the others.

The data was crunched in realtime using a system made by Telerivet, so poll workers could watch as votes came in. The system also checked incoming phone numbers so each phone (which roughly equates to each voter, or household) could only vote once per question.

Photo courtesy of ONE / Do Agric

Why This Matters

From a technological perspective, this poll is a brilliant example of choosing the right technology for the job. If a similar poll were conducted targeting middle-schoolers in the United States, it's likely that technologies like YouTube videos and click-to-vote within the video would be used. But for these Tanzanian farmers, the prevalent technologies are radio and cell phones. By putting them together, in a near zero-cost way, FRI was able to collect data that could influence government policies, which in turn could change livesusing just cellphones and radio.

This poll was part of a campaign called Do Agric, focused on encouraging African leaders to invest more in agriculture, in order to improve farming (and in turn, daily life) in Africa. Here's a video about the program:

When the results were announced earlier this week, Tanzania's President Kikwete said, "Action on agriculture has to be today, not tomorrow!" The voices of 8,891 farmers reached the president's ears.

For more on the survey, check out FRI's page on methodology and results.

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