A girl in Fiji smiles as she gets a hug from an Elmo puppet almost as big as she is

What does Elmo have to do with cyclones in Fiji?

More than you might guess.

On 20 and 21 February, Tropical Cyclone Winston smashed into Fiji with winds of up to 325 kilometres an hour.

Approximately 350,000 people were affected. Around 120,000 of them were children.

When it was over, 28,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. Some families lost everything.

Thousands of children now go to school in tents because their school buildings are no longer standing.

Some children were so terrified by the cyclone that they are still scared of any rain.

They may even start to run in panic – across roads, into rivers – to escape.

This is where Elmo and his friends can help.

Elmo’s wise words

Puppeteer Chris Lynch entertains a group of schoolchildren in Fiji with his Elmo puppet

The Red Cross is known for providing food, water, shelter and medical care after emergencies like Cyclone Winston.

And through our partners the Fiji Red Cross, we’re helping 38,500 people in Fiji – 7,700 families – with all of those essentials after the cyclone.

But we also help people understand and deal with what has happened.

This can include working with people to confront their fears and move on from the crisis.

In Fiji, the Red Cross used Elmo and other popular puppets from children’s TV to speak to around 1,000 schoolchildren in a way they can understand.

Visiting schools with puppeteer Chris Lynch, Elmo tells the children in his squeaky voice, “wind and rain is a normal part of life in Fiji.

“When it happens, you don’t need to run. Just stay with your teacher because your teacher knows what to do.”

Watch Elmo and his friends in action:

Keeping up with the fun

Teachers say that the puppet shows were an important turning point for the children.

Opening up and laughing helped them start to communicate with each other.

The puppets also gave them something other than the cyclone to think about.

A group of Red Cross staff and teachers in Fiji smile and hold the puppets they have made

To help keep this work going, Chris trained a dozen Fiji Red Cross staff and volunteers in puppetry around Rakiraki, a town badly damaged by the cyclone.

Holly Griffin, an expert in psychological and emotional support, has also trained over 100 volunteers with the Fiji Red Cross to help adults in their community.

“People have memories and emotions connected to their homes,” she explains.

“So when they’re damaged or destroyed, part of rebuilding is rebuilding those emotional connections and those memories, and making new positive memories on top of what has been a negative disaster experience.”

A classroom full of children in Fiji stand with their arms in the air with Chris Lynch holding his Grover puppet in the middle

Well done, Elmo and friends, for helping children to laugh again and, hopefully, to face the future with less fear and more fun.


Photographs: © IFRC/Corinne Ambler