Real Life

Chris Lynch’s laughter lessons in cyclone-ravaged Fiji

The Christchurch-based Newstalk ZB host took some muppet magic to the islands after Cyclone Winston hit Fiji.
Chris Lynch's laughter lessons in cyclone-ravaged Fiji

When Cyclone Winston tore through Fiji early this year, Christchurch-based Newstalk ZB host Chris Lynch knew he had to do something to help.

“I was covering the cyclone at work and was blown away by the devastation,” says Chris of the ferocious storm that ripped through Fiji on February 20 and caused devastation across the islands, killing 42 people and leaving tens of thousands without homes.

“Fiji has been hit by these storms before, but Cyclone Winston was different – it went through the interior of the island and struck some of the most vulnerable villages.”

Elmo and Chris met children who are being taught in makeshift tents while their school is rebuilt.

Fortunately, Chris had a couple of unlikely heroes in mind – Sesame Street’s Elmo and Grover.

“They were just tucked away in storage,” says the self-taught puppeteer, whose enthusiasm for puppetry was inspired by Muppets creator Jim Henson.

“I thought I may as well get them out of their cardboard box and try to put a smile on the faces of children who had lost their schools, homes and villages.”

Determined to put his plan in action, Chris contacted the Sesame Workshop in New York for permission to use their licensed characters for what he deemed to be a humanitarian programme.

“They were incredibly receptive to the idea,” tells Chris, who is the host of NewstalkZB’s Canterbury Mornings. “Puppets can help kids escape their fears and experience moments of happiness – and that is something the Sesame workshop is well aware of. They were only too happy to let me go ahead with it.”

With their support, it was then a matter of logistics. Fiji Airways offered to cover the flights and, with the Red Cross on board, Chris and his furry friends were away laughing – confident that their audience would do the same.

But it was harrowing scenes that greeted Chris when he touched down in Fiji, just over a month after the island nation was flattened by the storm. The lush tropical jungle was stripped bare of vegetation, and villages resembled rubbish dumps with homes and schools completely destroyed.

The Red Cross selected some of the hardest hit schools for Chris and the puppets to visit – each utterly gutted with makeshift classrooms set up in Red Cross and Unicef tents on the school grounds. But aside from the wrecked buildings, Chris says there was another thing each school had in common – frightened children.

“It was heartbreaking to see how sad they looked,” recalls Chris. “They were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. I had been told that they were so scared that whenever there was the slightest bit of wind or rain, they up and ran – that’s the effect the cyclone had on them and it was difficult to see.”

It’s hard to imagine a couple of creatures made of fur, felt and foam would have much of an impact on a nation that has been devastated by a ferocious cyclone. But Chris says the effect the puppets had on the children was incredible.

“The moment Elmo came out from behind the tent, their eyes lit up,” Chris tells. “He only had to move his head or bust out that infectious giggle of his and the children would laugh.”

Of course, as well as entertainment, Chris – through the power of puppetry – was able to educate the children.

“The Red Cross and I developed carefully worded scripts with subtle messages that the kids would understand and listen to,” he says.

This, he explains, is something the Sesame Workshop calls “Muppet Diplomacy”.

“Since 1969, the workshop has used this technique to engage children and promote positive messages across the planet, with incredible success, particularly when it comes to educational achievements.”

So in his trademark squeaky voice, Elmo told the students how to keep safe and healthy during and after an emergency like tropical Cyclone Winston, encouraging them to stay with their teachers and while it’s okay to be frightened, these things are part of life in Fiji.

And as Chris discovered, even a minor hiccup, such as Elmo’s eye accidentally coming loose, can be an opportunity to impart a bit of wisdom.

“Fortunately, one of the Red Cross workers was on to it and managed to turn it into the story – ‘Maybe Elmo has conjunctivitis and that’s why you should always wash your hands!’”

Speaking to the teachers and principals at the schools he visited, Chris was humbled by the positive feedback he received.

“They said that for the first time since the cyclone, the children were talking, laughing and running around – they were behaving like happy kids should,” recalls Chris

But the Muppets didn’t only bring a smile to the faces of the children – adults too were charmed by the furry monsters.

The fuzzy characters helped put a smile on the faces of children traumatised by Cyclone Winston.

“Some of the teachers were just as delighted as the kids and laughed just as much,” says Chris. “I spoke to the head of Fiji Red Cross, and he’s a big, stern, strong and imposing man – he started out looking very stressed but when I brought out Elmo and Grover, he was in fits of laughter and that was incredible.”

While he’s spent years puppeteering for charity and on children’s television shows, Chris says he never quite realised just how powerful Muppet monsters are in both educating and brightening the lives of those who have faced adversity.

“These colourful, furry creatures gave them all a new story to talk about, one that hopefully, even for a short time, helped to ease the pain of what they’ve been through.”

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