Strangers Help Sesame Street Puppeteer after Heirloom Necklace was Stolen

Sesame Workshop
Kim was a consulting producer for a Sesame Street special that introduced the character of Ji-Young.

Kathleen Kim is a performer, and she can usually keep her emotions in check.

But the puppeteer for Ji-Young, the first Asian American Muppet on Sesame Street, quickly broke down when she recently made a short, very personal video.

“I’ve honestly been putting off this video for a while because it just hurts to talk about it,” Kim told her TikTok followers. “This is my last-ditch effort at trying to locate my mom’s stolen jade necklace.”

Kim’s apartment building in New York City was damaged in a five-alarm fire late last year, and she said she felt lucky she and her family were unscathed in the blaze that injured 14 people. When she was allowed back in to collect her belongings two weeks after the fire, her heirloom necklace and other items were missing.

Kathleen Kim
Hundreds of tenants, including Kim and her family, were displaced in the Dec. 20 fire in Queens.

She choked up as she explained the significance of her mother’s gift.

“My parents are not sentimental people – anyone with Asian immigrant parents understands,” she said in the April 23 video. “Like they don’t really say, ‘I’m proud of you. I love you.’ They do it through actions.”

Kim said her mom, Joo In Kim, gave her the necklace for her birthday in 2022, in honor of her career. Her mother got the necklace as a gift from her sister and had treasured it for more than four decades, Kathleen Kim said. She added that her parents have had ups and down financially.

“My parents are Korean immigrants, and it was a big deal for me to have the first Asian American Muppet on Sesame Street,” she said.

“When my mom gave me the necklace, she told me Korean white jade was important to Koreans, and because I was doing something important for Korean people, she now wanted me to have it,” Kim added.

Kim said she kept the necklace in its velvet box on top of her dresser in her Queens apartment so that she could easily take it out and admire it.

“I only wore it once to an event – it was so precious to me, I didn’t want anything to happen to it,” she said.

The loss of such a sentimental object was overwhelming.

“Having gone through cancer treatment, I feel like I’m made of pretty strong stuff,” said Kim, 44, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017 and now shows no sign of the disease. “But this broke me. I can’t remember a time in my adult life when I’ve been so upset.”

Kim and other building residents who were looted after the fire filed police reports, she said. With no movement on the case, she asked her TikTok followers to share her story.

They did more than that.

“Nah you don’t steal from our beloved Sesame Street. Let’s get this necklace back!!” one commenter wrote.

Dozens of New Yorkers said they were checking pawnshops and secondhand jewelry stores for the necklace in case someone might have sold it. People with huge TikTok audiences, including Robbie Harvey and Soogia, made emotional videos for their millions of followers, asking more people to get involved and help.

In San Francisco, jewelry store owner John Quillinan posted a TikTok video with a $2,000 reward for the return of the necklace to his shop, no questions asked.

Kim said she was deeply touched.

“WHAAAAAAAAAAT???? SIR. WHAAAAT????? WHY?!!” Kim responded in the comments on his post.

“Because my kids loved Sesame Street and you deserve to have your necklace,” Quillinan replied.

“It’s really rare that items get returned after they’ve been stolen, but when I’ve seen them get returned, it’s when someone offers cash, no questions asked,” Quillinan, 35, told The Washington Post. “A couple of thousand dollars won’t kill me.”

He said he’s still waiting on leads.

“I’ve been in the jewelry business most of my life, and stories about people losing things precious to them are crushing,” he added.

Kim said she is overwhelmed by the response but not completely surprised.

“I think [the video] is relatable because Sesame Street is such a beacon of kindness,” she said. “It’s a place where we all felt safe growing up.”

Kim said she was about 6 the first time she watched Sesame Street after school.

“After that, I was pretty much a PBS kid,” she said. “Growing up, I was always really interested in puppets, and my dream job was to be a Muppeteer. But it didn’t seem like a realistic career choice. There wasn’t much diversity on the show then.”

She was in her 30s when she was accepted into a 2014 Sesame Street puppetry workshop, taught by some of the show’s top puppeteers, she said. That led to a stint as a puppetry assistant and then later, in 2021, Kim was a consulting producer for “See Us Coming Together,” a Sesame Street special that introduced the character of Ji-Young, a 7-year-old Korean American Muppet.

The film celebrated Asian American and Pacific Islander culture at the height of the coronavirus pandemic when crimes against Asian Americans were at their highest level, Kim said. In the film, when Ji-Young is told to “go home,” Elmo and other neighbors on Sesame Street rally to support her.

“Sesame Street is a place where everybody belongs, and Ji-Young helps us realize how much richer we are when we get to know people from other places,” Kim said.

Kim posted another video thanking her followers and everyone else who has helped her since her necklace was stolen. She said she’s learned a lesson after she and her family were displaced, and her apartment was burgled.

In addition to the necklace, also swiped were her wedding ring, money from her 8-year-old’s piggy bank and an expensive bottle of vitamin supplements she’d been using to grow her hair back after breast cancer treatments.

“Getting looted after losing our homes was the most despicable part of humanity for me and my neighbors,” she said. “But then I saw people opening their hearts. So my worst moment after a crisis was also the best.”

Sesame Workshop
Kathleen Kim with Sesame Street’s first Asian American Muppet, Ji-Young, in 2021.