“Sesame Street” hunger special spotlights Vineyard family

The Chivers family: dad Jon with kids, from left: Jonathan, Charlotte, and Josephine. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Some realities of life today in the United States were displayed Sunday night at the Vineyard Haven Public Library. About 20 Island residents gathered to watch the nationally-televised premier of public broadcasting’s “Sesame Street” special on hunger in the U.S., starring the Chivers family of Edgartown.

Most obvious was an audience, composed of very mature adults, chuckling at the antics of Elmo, Bert, Grover, and the time-honored “Sesame Street” Muppets, perhaps replaying early mornings with their own nippers in decades past. The “Sesame Street” gang is joined by Lily, a raspberry-colored Muppet created for the show to represent children’s view of hunger in their lives.

Funding for the show included a $1.5 million grant from the Wal-Mart retail chain. Betty Burton, events director at the library, a prime mover in the logistics of filming here, introduced the film in which she is briefly featured.

Most powerful were the stories of four families: from Edgartown, upstate New York, and from urban neighborhoods in and around New York City. Each family, both parents and children, described what life was like without enough food, the help they received to get their daily bread, and the changes for the better that their travail had worked in their lives. Powerful stuff, led by the comments of the Chivers family.

The presentation is deftly-done, does not sugarcoat the issue but leaves a message of hope, empowerment, and community-building as a result of action taken by these families and a community of help.

The one-hour production, called “Growing Hope Against Hunger,” opens with well-known “Sesame Street” characters and humans, including country star Brad Paisley and his wife, Kim Williams Paisley, outlining an issue that affects 15 percent of Americans and more than 20 percent of children.

In classic “Sesame Street” format, we take a road trip with Lily, Elmo, and Grover through the neighborhood to experience the solutions, notably beneficent activism, through volunteering, growing, and distributing food.

Directed by Academy-award winner Cynthia Wade, who was on-Island last spring to film the Chivers family segment, the film then moved to the real-life stories, powerfully and articulately told by the children and parents in three families.

The show’s producers picked widely disparate locales, urban, rural, and idyllic, and allow the anomalies and the similarities to speak for themselves. For example, the Island story led the second half-hour of the film. Martha’s Vineyard is, of course, widely regarded as a paradise of the rich and famous. What? Hunger? On Martha’s Vineyard?

As Armen Hanjian of the Island Food Pantry and Ms. Burton of Serving Hands are well aware, nearly seven percent of year-round Island residents are food- challenged.

Jon Chivers moved to the Island last spring to find work and unexpectedly found himself a single parent of three kids following a separation, with no housing, no job, and little food.

Mr. Chivers is articulate and open about his situation in the movie. “I had never been on unemployment. I felt inadequate that I could not provide for my family,” he said. The Island responded, meeting family food needs. Mr.Chivers found work at the VTA, now drives for Vineyard Propane, and has found an apartment in Edgartown’s Morgan Woods low and moderate income complex, Ms. Burton reported Sunday night.

We may believe that kids don’t understand grown-up problems but the film shows 7- to 11-year-olds not only getting it but worrying about it. They are also ready, willing, and able to grow up, perhaps too fast, to do something about the problems.

For example, seven-year-old Josie Chivers, without a snack at school, went to the water fountain. “I just filled up on water so I didn’t feel hungry,” she reports in the film.

And in Plainfield, N.J., 11-year old Jafir is growing up fast, modeling good behavior for his two younger siblings in a troubled neighborhood. His mom, Patricia Jones and his dad, a barber, are dancing as fast they can financially, but there simply isn’t enough money.

Across the river in the Bronx, 10-year-old Victoria knows that as well. “This place is a food desert, full of junk food,” she gestures around the street. “I like to get bananas because [her younger sibling] likes them, but they are $2 here, compared to 89 cents in Manhattan,” she says. She and her mother discover City Harvest, a food bank, and change their lives.

In a small upstate New York community, typified by industrious, hard-working families, The Gleason family’s dad, a carpenter, is laid off in a dried-up job market. The family members discuss their issues and make changes in their food-buying habits and visits the food bank. Seven-year-old Zoe learns the drill and begins food drives to help others.

“This has actually been a good experience for us. We don’t buy any quick-fix junk food any more. We eat healthier now, and since we’ve been involved with the food pantry, Zoe is much more conscious of the needs of others,” her mom says.