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Muppets and Mentors at Henry Street: New Program Uses Sesame Street to Connect Across Three Generations

By Sonia Jeambon

An older adult mentor hugs a preschooler mentee

In the fall of 2023, members of United Neighborhood Houses, including Henry Street, were invited to join a powerful intergenerational mentoring program that builds connections among older adults, teens, and preschool children. The program was developed by members of the Sesame Workshop Alumni Network (SWAN) in 2020 as a way to mitigate isolation experienced during the height of the pandemic.

Called SWAN 3G Mentoring Program, the three-generational structure enables older adults to mentor teenagers through nonjudgmental, guiding relationships, developed around viewing short, playful Sesame Street videos chosen to spark meaningful conversations. The teens, empowered by their relationships with their older adult mentors, then watch and discuss the same videos with preschoolers to practice empathy and communication skills. These “triad” relationships allow participants to laugh together, learn about each other’s worlds, discuss meaningful issues, and make unique cross-generational connections.

Henry Street’s Department of Integration and Community Engagement (D.I.C.E.) jumped on the opportunity to bring this program to the Lower East Side community. D.I.C.E. reached out to Henry Street’s Older Adult Center, Community Response Team (CRT), and Early Childhood Education program to select five participants from each program who would meet once a week at 301 Henry Street, for five weeks. Henry Street became the first site to hold SWAN 3G in person.

Children watch a clip from Sesame Street on a smartboard

Preschoolers watch a clip from Sesame Street and get ready to discuss with their mentors.

In each session, older adults and CRT members met to socialize, watched the Sesame Street clip, and then used a toolkit that guided their conversations. Then, the preschoolers joined, and the triads watched and discussed the same clip. Sometimes conversations with the preschoolers strayed, but the children were always eager to be in the presence of their teen mentors. CRT members laughed and looked to their older adult mentors for reassurance.

Shaddai Quintero, a CRT member, said, “I learned how to work with kids, especially the ones who had a hard time adjusting to unfamiliar faces. Jaiden opened up the last day, and it was worth being patient.” Each week preschoolers, CRT members, and older adults felt more comfortable, playful, and engaged with one another. CRT members exchanged phone numbers with their older adult mentors, and preschoolers wouldn’t let go of their teens’ hands. Rosa Gonzalez, an older adult mentor said, “During this program, I found out things about myself I never knew.”

On the last day, participants watched a clip from the very first season of Sesame Street, in 1969, featuring Henry Street’s very own Debbie Cox! In the episode, “What Kids are Made Of,” four-year-old Debbie runs out of 301 Henry Street, down to 40 Montgomery, and ends up at the firehouse—now part of the Settlement, at 269 Henry. Debbie began preschool at Henry Street at the age of three and now is vice president of D.I.C.E. and works in the firehouse! Debbie and her team work across the agency to integrate the various programs, organize community events, and encourage youth to be leaders.

SWAN 3G’s goals are to connect generations, foster deep relationships, and create opportunities for young people to learn new skills by becoming mentors. “This aligns perfectly with D.I.C.E.’s mission,” Debbie Cox says.

D.I.C.E. is grateful to United Neighborhood Houses and SWAN 3G for bringing this wonderful program to our doors. Debbie says, “For me, as a Henry Street participant turned employee, this partnership feels full circle. We appreciate Sesame Street’s return to the Settlement and the opportunity we had to engage in meaningful conversation and community building between the three generations of our participants. We look forward to continuing the 3G model throughout the agency to foster intergenerational support, understanding, and care.”

Participants in the mentoring program pose with their certificates

3G Mentoring Program participants at their celebration for completing the program. Debbie Cox stands at the far right.

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