The children’s section of the Coronado Library has a darling new addition of “BookWorm,” a bronze statue recently donated by United Through Reading (UTR), in collaboration with Dr. and Mrs. Clifford Colwell, Jr., longtime UTR supporters. This donation marks an ongoing relationship between UTR and the Coronado Public Library, which actively supports UTR and the local military community. The sculpture, created by noted sculptor Gary Lee Price, was unveiled at a dedication ceremony on March 24, 2022.
Imagine a child’s joy and connection as they see their parent or loved one reading a favorite book, even though they are thousands of miles away. This is what military families experience through UTR, which was founded 33 years ago in San Diego, by Betty Mohlenbrock, a Navy spouse and reading specialist looking for ways to keep her young daughter bonded to her dad during deployment. Starting with cassette tapes and VHS tapes, this highly successful program has now evolved to sim cards and a free app. Since its inception, 2.7 million military family members have stayed connected through stories, read in more than 200 locations around the world.
It was a completely new concept at the time, but this program has a proven track record of making reunification after deployment much easier for families. It helps families stay connected, while promoting and fostering reading literacy. The program stresses the importance of learning to read, and then continuing to read at all levels. UTR CEO Sally Zoll notes that “Reading families are more mission ready.”
Zoll was a teacher who went on to help build two educational software companies and started as UTR’s CEO 16 years ago. “The timing was right, and this is the best thing I’ve ever done. I feel blessed and I couldn’t have dreamed of a more rewarding job.” She helped move the program from just San Diego to now working around the world. Growing up as a book lover in a small town in Indiana, she reminisced that the Shel Silverstein books were particularly meaningful, as each member of her family picked out their favorite poems. She moved to Coronado in 1975 and immediately felt at home here. She has a military connection with her husband retired from the Army, and her son currently enlisted. Almost all of the 20 UTR staff members have military connections, some are military spouses and others are retired military. They rely on countless volunteers, who help staff tables to promote the program at military events, and also have active duty volunteers, many on aircraft carriers, who help families use the reading program to stay connected during deployment.
Zoll points out that they have a careful process for book selections that appeal to all ages. They focus on the classics, like “Good Night Moon,” which is one of the most requested. They also find ethnically diverse books to mirror the military population, and also those that speak to missed events, like holidays, losing a first tooth, or learning to ride a bike, for which “Duck on a Bike” has been particularly popular. Dr. Seuss books are always a hit, and “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” has been especially meaningful for graduating high school seniors.
One component of the program is the Mobile Story Station, which is a tricked-out blue, white, and green van, outfitted with a comfy chair and library, where a staff member can record book readings on video. This mobile unit travels all over the county as requested, and stops at Padres games, Camp Pendleton, the Navy SEAL complex, and Silver Strand Elementary School, to name just a few. An East Coast mobile van is about to launch in Washington, D.C.
Ships get quarterly batches of 25 to 50 books, depending on need, and a STEM Summer Slide offers books focused on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. UTR is getting ready to stock the Mercy Ship, which will be heading out soon.
UTR also has a free secure reading app where people can record themselves, and then upload the video and request that the book be mailed to their family. UTR partners with First Book to get books at deeply discounted rates and for book shipping. It’s more beneficial to donate money direct to the program, which can then buy more books than if purchased at a store.
Books have been read just about everywhere, including the top of the world when a Coast Guard member was bundled up reading on the deck of a cutter as it broke through the ice. This gave his children the opportunity to see dad at work, while reading a heartfelt book. One Navy family with four children remembers the connection they had from the stories their dad read during his 20 year career, and now the older brother is sending stories to his younger sisters to stay connected. This program has true staying power through generations of military families.
Every branch of the active or reserve military is welcome to use the program: Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marines, National Guard, Navy, and even Space Force. “If you wear a uniform, we serve you,” comments Zoll. Most often it’s deployed fathers and mothers who read stories to their children, but best friends, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and siblings can also participate.
A national non-profit literacy organization, UTR also hosts the annual Storybook Ball to raise funds to keep this vital program going for military families. The black-tie event usually features an author, military honoree, and a beneficiary child who shares what the program means to them. Past attendees have included “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” author Jeff Kinney and “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” writer Laura Numeroff. This year’s event will be held on November 5.
More details about all the programs can be found at unitedthroughreading.org.