Child hears book read via facetime UTR
United Through Reading Keeps Military Families Connected through Reading

United Through Reading (UTR) serves a critical purpose; namely to help ease the stress and strain of families separated through deployment and other forms of military service. The organization does this by providing service members with a way to record stories to send home to the children in their lives. In addition to this service, UTR fosters literacy skills in children through various means. UTR recognizes that literacy is the key for military families to stay in touch, and sees its literacy programs as part and parcel of its read aloud service.

We honor our service members as well as the sacrifice of their families. Then too, literacy is an important focus of our small grant program. As such, we feel privileged to lend a modest helping hand to this original and invaluable initiative. We put some questions to United Through Reading Vice President of Advancement Jenna Lang to find out more about this work:

Kars4Kids: Who founded United Through Reading and why? When was it founded?

Jenna Lang: United Through Reading’s founder, Betty Mohlenbrock, a military spouse and reading specialist, experienced family strains when her husband deployed to Vietnam. Determined to help other military families, Betty carried a video camera and a few children’s books to the 32nd Street Naval Base in San Diego in 1989, where she recorded sailors reading stories to leave behind with their children during long months at sea. Betty was convinced that recorded stories could strengthen emotional bonds between children and their faraway parents while nurturing reading skills.

Service member holds book in front of United Through Reading Mobile Story Station

Kars4Kids: How many families have you served since that time?

Jenna Lang: Since 1989, United Through Reading (UTR) has served 3.3 million military family members through shared storytime connection and literacy advancement.

Father helps children choose books at United Through Reading event

Kars4Kids: United Through Reading offers storytime video recordings from military parents. Do the parents record for their own children? How does it work?

Jenna Lang: Yes, United Through Reading offers military service members and veterans a variety of ways to record stories for the children in their lives. We encourage parents, older siblings, aunts and uncles, grandparents, and even godparents to make recordings to share with the special children in their lives. Our app can record stories from any location with a secure link sent to family members at home. Additionally, we offer embedded story stations onboard ships and military bases worldwide, as well as two Mobile Story Stations that allow us to record service members where they are located, leaving them with either a digital recording or an SD card with their recording to send home to their child.

woman holds UTR storytime kit in front of United Through Reading Mobile Story Station

Kars4Kids: Who benefits from what you offer? Are the recordings specifically for young children?

Jenna Lang: There are over 1.6 million military children in the United States, with 70% below eleven. Military families struggle with staying connected when military duty keeps them apart for any period of time. Even with technology such as FaceTime, factors including, but not limited to operational security, internet access, and vastly different time zones can make staying in contact and having one-on-one moments with loved ones challenging. United Through Reading fully understands military families’ challenges and has created programs and services to lessen these burdens and strengthen family bonds. Recordings are for children of all ages. The power of reading together does not depend on age.

UTR event

Kars4Kids: United Through Reading offers free reading trackers. Can you tell us about them and their purpose?

Jenna Lang: Though the families we serve are military, the resources on our website are available to all families. Our printable reading trackers are one way we encourage literacy enrichment at home. Tracking reading provides a sense of accomplishment, accountability, and a way for every family member to incorporate reading into their day. United Through Reading offers three age-appropriate reading trackers, literacy guides, podcasts, and educational blog posts to foster literacy advancement. This provides families with fun and unique options to excite reluctant readers and continue to build literacy confidence in children of all ages.

Kars4Kids: What are some of the difficulties that children face when their parents are deployed? How does what you offer, help them?

Jenna Lang: Military children often experience multiple moves, extended separations from family members, increased fear for their parent’s safety during deployment, and other stressors related to the unpredictability of military life. Despite incredible bravery, strength, and resilience, military families—especially the children—have increased risk factors associated with the military lifestyle that can bring instability to family life. Research indicates that children from active-duty military families, compared to civilian families, experience significantly higher levels of emotional difficulties during family separations. About one-third of the military children surveyed in a recent study reported symptoms of anxiety.

United Through Reading facilitates comforting family read-aloud routines and helps military families maintain that routine even when service members can’t be home for storytime. With United Through Reading video recordings, families are guaranteed special and uninterrupted time with their service members, time that can be enjoyed over and over. Family connection, the shared reading routine, and the ability to see parents’ faces and hear their voices reduce the stress and anxiety that time apart brings.

Kars4Kids: Tell us about your story stations, if you will. How many of them are there, where are they operated, and what exactly do they offer?

Jenna Lang: United Through Reading has two Mobile Story Station vans. (MSS). One is on the East Coast, and one is in San Diego. Mobile Story Stations:

  • Support units at their events, such as at pre-deployment briefings and Yellow Ribbon events, or attend larger local community gatherings, such as library storytimes or community information sessions.
  • Allow United Through Reading staff to go where needed; examples include child development centers, partner organization events, and installation events.
  • Service members read a story onsite and leave with their recording and a new book for their child/children to read.

Kars4Kids: United Through Reading also distributes books. Can you give us an overview of how this works? What type of books are available?

Jenna Lang: United Through Reading distributes new, free, age-appropriate books directly to military and Veteran families. Books are distributed through United Through Reading events, and military families can also order them through the UTR app with every story recorded. Our book list includes different genres, reading levels, and exposure to many diverse and inclusive titles designed to bolster ALL military children’s socio-emotional health. United Through Reading is dedicated to building home libraries. Research shows that having books in the home can close academic achievement gaps, increase the likelihood of children staying in school, increase empathy, lead to higher adult brain function, and increase the likelihood of future employment. Many military families struggle financially; a new book is often considered a luxury. By offering free, high-quality books, United Through Reading reduces a potential burden on families who already sacrifice so much.

Kars4Kids: Not too long ago, First Lady Jill Biden and other government figures joined you for a special event. What can you tell us about this momentous occasion for United Through Reading?

Jenna Lang: In February 2023, First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff, U.S. governors’ spouses, and United Through Reading leadership assembled 800 reading-ready kits, complete with children’s books and other literacy materials for National Guard families around the country, during the National Governors Association Winter Meeting.

UTR partnered with Joining Forces, Dr. Biden’s initiative to support military and veteran families, caregivers, and survivors. The reading kits aim to help military families stay connected through shared storytime.

“United Through Reading gives children a chance to share their favorite book with the person they love most and go to sleep knowing that no matter the distance, their service member is thinking of them, loving them, and watching over them,” said Dr. Jill Biden.

Kars4Kids: What’s next for United Through Reading?

Jenna Lang: At its core, United Through Reading focuses on educating vulnerable military children through literacy. Literacy is the cornerstone of all other knowledge and skills a young person will acquire, including the STEM disciplines. Reading with children is a powerful educational tool that nurtures children’s self-esteem; instills the joy of reading at an early age; and strengthens the bond children need with their families. Numerous studies point to this conclusion: reading aloud to children is the single most important activity for building the earliest emergent reading skills.

In 2023, United Through Reading launched Operation Storytime because millions of storytime moments are missed due to military life challenges. These bonding, connection, and learning moments are crucial for military families. Our goal is to serve the next one million military family members.