Program Connects Families With Books

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Sept. 18, 2006 - A California-based program designed to reinforce the benefits of reading aloud to children is making it easier for deployed parents to do so.

"United Through Reading," a Family Literacy Foundation program for military families, provides deployed parents the means to video record themselves reading to their children from wherever they're stationed.

"We're talking about the joy of reading and the bond that is established between parents and children," said Betty Mohlenbrock, founder of the Family Literacy Foundation, and a former Navy wife.

She calls the program a "turn-key" operation, set up so anyone can participate. Deployed parents receive the materials necessary to record themselves reading to their child, including a small library of children's books.

Mohlenbrock said the DVDs they create quickly become favorites. "Many of the kids, we've heard ... call these videos their 'Daddy Movies,'" she said.

United Through Reading is available at 140 sites overseas, and on Navy ships, Mohlenbrock said. Included in that number are about 40 United Service Organizations sites. "The advantage to that is all the branches can find availability of the program if it's at (USOs)," she added.

Currently, the program works mostly with the Navy, and has some outreach in the Marine Corps, but Mohlenbrock said United Through Reading has its "toes in the door with other branches."

The Target Corporation has helped that expansion tremendously, providing the nonprofit organization with some much-needed funding. "They are very, genuinely interested in benefiting military families," Mohlenbrock said. "I think the thing that's unique about what we do, and such a good match for them, is that (the program) has to do with reading and family connections."

The program began in 1990 during the Gulf War, but the seed was planted during the Vietnam War, said Mohlenbrock, an educator and reading specialist.

During that time, her husband was a flight surgeon deployed for 10 months on a carrier, and she had a toddler at home. The couple's daughter turned 2 while her father was deployed.

"In those days, we had just a couple of phone calls, no e-mail," Mohlenbrock said. "When he came home, she didn't recognize him."

About that same time, Mohlenbrock said she realized to the benefits of reading to a child--and how little importance American society was placing on it.

"Only 50 percent of American children (are) read to regularly before they go to school, and 35 percent of children enter school two years behind their peers," she said. "At the same time, so much research was substantiating the importance of this experience that is the single best predictor of a child's future success in reading, if they've been read to regularly."

Mohlenbrock knows her program is beneficial in other ways as well. "It helps with reunification, such as it would have certainly helped with our daughter," she said.

Commanders also have told Mohlenbrock what a morale boost the program is for the deployed parent. "It gives them great satisfaction to be able to participate in that part of their (children's) lives during long deployments," she said.

It also can free up a few minutes for the spouse at home, she said.

While the program focuses on kids ages 3 to 5, Mohlenbrock advocates reading to children as long as they express an interest. "(It's) not to say that once they turn 5 that you quit, because the benefits are forever, particularly in communication and in bonding," she said. "The conversations that come out of story time are perhaps richer than any other time of the day."

The Family Literacy Foundation offers other, smaller programs to the community at large. One focuses on providing preschoolers with the experience of being read to by high school students. Both groups are from at-risk communities.

The foundation also runs a program for San Diego County jail inmates, and another, similar to the military program, for grandparents.

The Family Literacy Foundation is a member of the Defense Department's America Supports You program, which highlights ways Americans and the corporate sector support the nation's servicemembers.

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