Tyrone Seniors Part of Sesame Street History

Tyrone seniors Ashlynn and Caleb McKinney introduced the topics of international and single parent adoption to Sesame Street’s audience in 2006 by playing the role of baby Marco.

Tyrone seniors Caleb and Ashlynn McKinney played Marco, an adopted baby, on Sesame Street in 2005. It was the first time Sesame Street addressed the issue of international and single parent adoption on the show.

For over 53 years, Sesame Street has been teaching children numbers and letters while also tackling an array of “grown-up” issues that other children’s shows are reluctant to address.

Sesame Street has aired episodes on divorce, foster care, homelessness, autism, physical disability, and grief, among other issues.

One important topic that has been a reoccurring theme on the show is adoption.

In the 2006 three-episode series “Gina Adopts a Baby” the show introduced viewers to “Marco,” an adopted child from Guatemala. Marco was adopted by cast regular Gina Jefferson, played by actress Allison Bartlett.

Marco appeared in 13 episodes from 2006 to 2013. In the first three episodes, Marco was played by current Tyrone High School seniors Ashlynn and Caleb McKinney.

Just like the fictional Marco, Ashlynn and Caleb were also adopted from Guatemala.

Tyrone natives Melanie and Adam McKinney adopted the twins in 2005.

They were just under a year old when the Marco episodes were produced, and this June they will graduate high school and go off to college and the military, respectively.

A Part of Television History

McKinney family portrait
Caleb and Ashlynn wearing shirts that the McKinneys were given on the Sesame Street set 18 years ago. (Todd Cammarata)

The opportunity to be a part of Sesame Street history came to the McKinneys through their adoption agency.

“[They] directed me to a posting online announcing that Sesame Street was seeking twins adopted from Guatemala to be on the show. I submitted information about them and I remember getting the call while I was at work. I saw on the caller ID that the call was from Sesame Street Workshop and I couldn’t believe it. I will never forget that phone call,” said Melanie.

Marco’s character was written into the show to address two important issues: non-traditional families and the rise in international adoption in the US.

In the first episode with baby Marco, Elmo asks Gina, “What does adoption mean?” Gina replies, “It’s something very, very special. A baby, a little boy, needs someone to love him and take care of him. I want to be that person so I’ll adopt him and become his mom. He’ll come live here on Sesame Street and we’ll be a family.”

In a recent Eagle Eye interview, Sesame Workshop Content Producer Autumn Zitani said that the Marco storyline was one of her first big projects.

As the Senior Director of Content for Sesame Workshop’s Curriculum and Content Department, Zitani has been responsible for overseeing the development and implementation of the educational curriculum at Sesame Street since 2003.

Zitani said that they chose to have Gina adopt a Guatemalan child because Guatemala was one of the few countries at the time that supported adoption by single women.

Zitani also said that it was also important to portray a single-parent household because it was a growing demographic in the United States.

“At the time, statistics showed that almost a third of children were being raised in single-parent households. It also gave us a chance to model yet another definition of what a family is,” said Zitani.

While our contribution to Sesame Street was very small, I hope that there was at least one child watching who was able to see themselves in us and feel that sense of familiarity on screen

— Ashlynn McKinney

Executive Producer and Vice President for Sesame Street Productions Sal Perez agreed that the time was right for Sesame Street viewers to be exposed to the many versions of the American family.

“It was a unique opportunity to reflect a growing reality in the United States where single-family homes and adoption were on the rise. This gave an opportunity for kids in similar homes to feel seen and represented on Sesame Street,” added Perez.

By focusing on adoption, specifically international, interracial, and single-parent adoption, the show highlighted how a loving family can come in many different forms.

“Young children are learning every day and can be so observant of what they are exposed to. They don’t hesitate to ask questions and want to understand what they are watching,” said Zitani.“Seeing Marco as an adopted child might have been the first exposure of adoption for millions of children and it was represented in a loving and nurturing environment.”

Ashlynn is proud of her role as a trailblazing actress, even if she doesn’t remember a single moment of it.

She is also proud that she and her brother were part of the history of diverse representation in television and media and hopes to see more diversity in the future.

“While our contribution to Sesame Street was very small, I hope that there was at least one child watching who was able to see themselves in us and feel that sense of familiarity on screen,” said Ashlynn.

The McKinneys also hope that their role in the show helped more people to consider adoption in the future.

“I hope more kids get adopted and get the opportunity to be as lucky as me and Ashlynn to get into a good family,” said Caleb.

Experience On the Set

Melanie described their experience on the set of Sesame Street as nostalgic and impactful.

Like millions of Americans, Melanie also grew up watching Sesame Street and fell in love with the show and the characters.

“Being on the set for the tapings I felt like we were all a big family. They welcomed us with open arms. To be able to see how they recorded this show was incredible. It gave me a new appreciation for the show in general,” said Melanie.

The twins and Melanie sitting on the steps with Telly Monster and Martin Robinson
Melanie, Ashlynn and Caleb McKinney on the iconic Sesame Street steps with Sesame Street puppeteer Martin Robinson and his character Telly Monster. (Photo courtesy of Melanie McKinney)

The McKinneys got to interact with the characters and cast members and get a behind-the-scenes look at how the show was produced.

“To see how the cast members all love being around children was amazing,” said Melanie.

Even today, rewatching the episodes fills her with many emotions.

“It brought back so many memories of having the twins placed in our arms for the very first time while we were in Guatemala. A moment that I will never forget and will cherish forever,” said Melanie.

Melanie vividly remembers the scene linked in the video above when Marco, who was played by Caleb in this scene, is picked up from the crib by Gina (click the video link above to watch this scene).

“I was about 200 feet away from Caleb when that was shot. I had tears streaming down my face then and again now when I watched it. There was not a dry eye on the set when it was recorded. They even used his own blanket in that show which was so cool,” said Melanie.

On Being “Famous”

In an era when so many are obsessed with views and likes, the McKinneys were more famous before they could walk than most social media influencers today will ever be.

Even though Ashlynn and Caleb were too young at the time to recall being on Sesame Street, their brief career as TV stars still give them a bit of celebrity status among their peers and teachers.

“It’s definitely a cool story to tell people and until recently I never realized the true intentions of those episodes, but now that I know it’s cool to be a part of that. Not only the show, but the whole adoption storyline,” said Caleb.

Ashlynn says it’s something she will often bring up when she meets people for the first time.

“It’s definitely a cool story to tell people and until recently I never realized the true intentions of those episodes, but now that I know it’s cool to be a part of that not only to the show but the whole adoption storyline.”

— Caleb McKinney

“It’s a great ‘fun fact’ to spring on people in icebreaker situations. I almost always win ‘two truths and a lie’,” said Ashlynn.

Marco’s Legacy

Since its debut in 1969, Sesame Street has often integrated important social issues and topics into the show, and the McKinneys say that they are fortunate to have had a small role in one of them.

Knowing that these episodes are still being viewed tens of thousands of times a year and will live on in reruns, on YouTube, and on streaming platforms for many years to come is special to the McKinneys.

Ashlynn is also impressed by how well the episodes have held up over time.

“A lot of times when adoption is portrayed on television, they do a very poor job, specifically portraying biological mothers in a negative light. But when I rewatched the Marco episodes recently it reminded me that they did a really good job. It is very respectfully done,” said Ashlynn.

To Executive Producer Sal Perez, that’s what Sesame Street is all about.

Sesame Street and our beloved characters have the unique opportunity to represent children all over the world and from every walk of life. It’s a responsibility we take seriously. Showing our audience kids from all those walks of life inspires kindness, inclusion, and understanding. For kids that might come from any of the communities we explore, we hope it inspires love and pride. That, of course, is all part of the Sesame Street mission,” said Perez.

Perez was also happy to learn that 18 years later, the McKinneys cherish their brief time on Sesame Street.

“Time flies! It’s always special to see how people involved in the over 50-year history of Sesame Street grow and make their way into the world. We’re proud of them and their contribution to Sesame Street,” said Perez.

Happy graduation, Marco!