Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization behind Sesame Street, is a leader in the educational industry, working to address developmental, physical, and emotional needs of children. This season, Sesame Street celebrates its 50 year anniversary. They were also recently awarded two $100 million dollar grants – one from the MacArthur Foundation to Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) to educate young children affected by displacement and conflict in the Middle East, and one from the LEGO Foundation to Sesame Workshop, BRAC, and the IRC to bring the power of learning through play to children affected by the Rohingya and Syrian refugee crises – together, the largest early childhood intervention in the history of humanitarian response. Neha Bhatia, BYSO ’13, is a Program Coordinator of Humanitarian Programs in Sesame Workshop’s International Social Impact Department.
Play to Learn, the LEGO Humanitarian project, has two goals – the immediate response work to reach children affected by crises and adverse childhood experiences in the Rohingya and Syrian response regions; and the long-term goal of creating content that can be used in future humanitarian interventions. “I was first drawn to Sesame Workshop when I came across a news article with a photo of Big Bird amongst refugee children and was struck by the idea of two incredible organizations – Sesame Workshop and the IRC – at the peak of their fields converging to serve this humanitarian response.”
Neha and her peers will be tackling the challenge of shaping their content specifically for a more vulnerable audience. “I, and many others, are coming into an organization that has decades of history doing early childhood development in a specific way, and now is venturing into humanitarian work for the first time, which poses a unique challenge. We have to use extra care in how we approach this project. As a Program Coordinator, I look forward to helping to grow and shape the impact that this program will have on these kids.”
Neha has noticed many things in common between her experience as a student at BYSO, and her role now as a Sesame Workshop staff member. “Although I’m not playing music in my job, so many life skills that I learned came from my experience at BYSO – it has shaped how I approach teamwork and how I’ve learned to collaborate over the years. Your role changes based on your position in groups – being a member of your particular instrument section, then being a member of your larger wind section, and finally being part of the whole orchestra overall – and you have to navigate each of these. No one is there to shine on their own and we all have to work together.”
Although BYSO is a music-focused organization and Sesame Workshop emphasizes play and education, both institutions are rooted in childhood development and learning. “We focus on social development, physical development, emotional development, and the use of creativity and play to nurture all areas of development – an approach that can be very similar to music. Although their methodologies are different upfront, there are a lot of really similar skills that are honed at both organizations.”
In honor of Fed’s 20th anniversary this season, Neha recalls: “During the Falstaff opera, I was playing first oboe, and I made a colossally wrong entrance during the performance. I was incredibly upset and felt very guilty. I heard that Fed wanted to speak to me during intermission, and I was petrified. When I saw him, he gave me a huge hug and told me that I sounded great and everyone made mistakes. I remember feeling so relieved and grateful in that moment. Fed taught me a lot of skills, thick skin, resilience, and love – I really appreciate him, and everything he did.”
Though she is no longer playing music, Neha feels that it will always be in her life. “There is an enormous amount of time, effort, and heart that goes into the experience at BYSO. Even if you don’t keep up with it the way you expect to, it’s not lost! Music will always be a big part of who I am, and knowing that gives me inspiration and hope.”
Are you, or someone you know, a BYSO alum with a cool or interesting story or life update to share? Contact Jessica Chen, Development & Alumni Relations Associate!