Chris Lynch: Muppet relief in wake of Fiji cyclones

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Newstalk ZB's Chris Lynch with Elmo (left) and Grover (right). Photo / supplied
Newstalk ZB's Chris Lynch with Elmo (left) and Grover (right). Photo / supplied

It's hard to imagine an area in New Zealand being overwhelmed by civil unrest or devastating weather events.

We're fortunate our geographical isolation protects us from the worst of human nature, and with the exception of the Canterbury earthquakes, the worst of mother-nature. However, cyclones and subsequent flooding in Fiji is another reminder that our Pacific neighbour remains vulnerable.

Tropical cyclone Winston was by far the worst disaster to hit Fiji. Over 120,000 children were directly impacted by the second-strongest storm to ever make landfall (second only to Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines). Aid agencies do amazing work, stepping in where governments fail, providing immediate and ongoing assistance to affected people, providing food, clean drinking water and shelter under incredibly difficult circumstances.

After nature disasters, adults can often feel overwhelmed by their experiences, and as noted by mental health experts in Christchurch, children can feel isolated and model their parents' depressive behaviour.

But there is one simple way children can escape their fears and experience moments of happiness and that's in the form of felt and foam - using the power of the Muppets including Elmo, Grover and the characters developed by creative genius, Jim Henson.

Since 1969, New York-based Sesame Workshop (the company behind iconic children's television show, Sesame Street) has been using what they call "Muppet diplomacy" to engage children and promote positive messages across the planet, with incredible success, particularly when it comes to educational achievements.

In fact, international producers have made it their mission to promote peace, tolerance and happiness in the world's most conflicted and devastated places. And with that in mind, my ZB headphones are coming off and my glove puppets are going on, bound for Fiji.

I've experienced first-hand just how powerful the Muppets are after being invited by Sesame producers in 2009 to accompany the world's most talented puppeteers on a promotional tour in Australia. Elmo can certainly 'work a room' receiving belly laughs from adults. However, the character's ability to connect with children is something quite special. Before my "serious" job at Newstalk ZB, I was fortunate to work with some of New Zealand's most creative people performing puppets on local and national television shows, as well as embarrassing former colleague Mark Sainsbury, by turning him into the country's first official Muppet, made by the Disney workshop in New York.

As a result of New Zealand's shift away from not-for-profit locally-made children's television, in favour of ratings-driven shows, my television puppets have been relegated to plastic snap boxes in the storage cupboard. However, that's about to change. With the kind support of Fiji Airways, Red Cross and Sesame Workshop, two of the world's most recognisable monsters will accompany me to Fiji's most devastated regions, where I'm pretty confident they'll make even the saddest of children smile.

Experience is on my side. Last year, I visited the children's hospital in Christchurch and took my furry mates along. I came across a girl, who was about 12, hooked up to multiple tubes, unable to speak or walk. Her only form of communication was through eye movements. I didn't want to embarrass her by shoving a Muppet in her face but my assumption was wrong. Her mother insisted Elmo and Grover say hello. I gathered she knew they weren't real but the girl didn't care.

Her mum said her daughter liked the tactile experience of the character's soft fur on her hands. It made a pleasant change from the highly specialised medical equipment monopolising her. Grover and Elmo's comical behaviour won her over. Seeing her eyes light up and her mouth so expressive with the biggest smile, was a moment I'll never, ever forget. The world famous monsters achieved Sesame's goal of providing happiness in the most trying of situations.

READ MORE: Schools dispatch goods to Fiji

I've been warned by my friend at Red Cross, to expect the unexpected in Fiji. I will be visiting children living in areas where elements of modern life that much of the world takes for granted are scarce or non-existent. However, Sesame Street, which is seen in over 120 countries, is able to transcend the parameters of television, and directly impact particularly vulnerable communities using fury monsters.

While the Muppets are not exactly Mother Teresa, I hope in the eyes of the local children, they'll go some way to provide a little light relief.

Chris Lynch is travelling to Fiji courtesy of Fiji Airways.

Chris Lynch is a journalist and host of Newstalk ZB's Christchurch morning programme, which you can hear 8.30am weekday mornings.

- NZME.

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