Their homes are tents and their parents are stressed, yet refugee children still get the chance to learn along with Elmo in Syrian refugee camps, thanks to the work of Sherrie Westin (Col ’80). Westin led the efforts of Sesame Workshop to win a $100 million MacArthur Foundation grant, which will enable the nonprofit to bring culturally sensitive, inclusive early-education programs to an estimated 9.4 million children displaced from Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria.
Less than 2.5 percent of all humanitarian aid goes to education, according to the United Nations and its tracking of humanitarian funding. And only a sliver of that percentage goes to educating the youngest children, which means those children struggle for the rest of their lives, says Westin, newly promoted president of global impact and philanthropy for Sesame Workshop.
The programs are customized to each region, so in the version for Afghanistan, there’s a little girl who loves to go to school. This character aims to inspire girls but also show boys that it’s OK for a girl to be educated.
“That is a powerful tool,” Westin says, “to plant the seeds for societal change.”
Sesame Workshop is the nonprofit behind Sesame Street, which Westin says was the first children’s television show to feature a multiracial cast and among the first to feature children with disabilities, even introducing a Muppet character with autism. “Programs like this are amazing in what they do to destigmatize, to help children feel less alone, to promote empathy and understanding,” she says. “Sesame can be an incredible tool to make a difference in the world.”
Westin, who says she took a long, winding road to get to Sesame Street, discovered at UVA that she needn’t have a precise course in mind. “I learned that as long as I was open to new ideas and new experiences,” she says, “that attitude could lead you to fascinating places.”