A nonprofit that supports U.S. service members and their families during times of separation is celebrating a major milestone.
United Through Reading, an organization founded in 1989, works with military families through video-recorded storytime and new books at more than 300 locations around the world. This year, the program reached an achievement of connecting 3 million military family members.
Tim Farrell, CEO of United Through Reading, is an Air Force veteran who served for 23 years. He said he is grateful for all the families who have benefitted from the free service and knows firsthand the difference UTR can have during a deployment.
“[The program] was a difference-maker for my family and I on two different deployments to Iraq. Young kids don’t always understand why the service member isn’t available. Having that story time on demand gives peace of mind and makes us feel close. We were so grateful that our family was able to take advantage of that at a tough time, and a tough age for my kids,” he said.
When the program launched 34 years ago in San Diego, UTR used VHS tapes to record sailors and Marines reading children’s books at the pier, then sent those tapes to their families. Over time, as technology has evolved, the mission of connecting families has remained the same, but the methods have changed.
“We evolve the technology to make sure it’s accessible to all, regardless of geography or length of separation. At some locations, we offer recordings on DVDs or mini-disks. On Navy and Coast Guard ships, recordings are done on SD cards and mailed home. The important thing is this: What you do at home, we want to make sure you can continue to do it, no matter the distance,” Farrell said.
The Stroup family is one of the many military families who has benefitted from UTR programs. Military spouse Jenny Lynne Stroup says still has 32 mini-disks that her husband made while he was deployed on the USS George H. W. Bush. At the time, she had a toddler and a new baby. The recordings he made on ship and mailed home helped the whole family.
“Our videos are a mixture of daily life and toddler books. I used it as entertainment for the toddler while I did what had to be done with the baby. [My son] would interact with his dad and latch on to a favorite one, so he had one disk that he watched probably 1,000 times. My husband loves to talk, so he would tell us about his day. Once he told us how they celebrated the 4th of July with a Steel Beach party and swimming in the ocean. Recording was a mental break for him,” Stroup said.
As her children grew, Stroup continued to use the program. She notes that the book titles available include elementary ages too.
“When I was a first grade teacher at a California elementary school, I had UTR come out during the Month of the Military Child. They set up a storybook station at the school library, and the kids could read a book to a deployed parent. Then digital files were sent to families. We had kids reading that hadn’t been reading before, because they just wanted to connect to their deployed parents,” Stroup said.
Currently, there are 300 fixed story stations on bases across the DOD, where service members will find books, recorders, tripods and a comfortable environment to connect with their child. In recent years, they have added Mobile Story Stations on the east and west coasts. These are large vans which have been customized inside and can be driven to events on or off base.
“We’ve been able to outfit these mobile children’s libraries with a really comfortable reading room and recording station, where we can get folks comfortable and aware of UTR services. The east coast Mobile Story Station is currently ‘on tour,’ and we continue to create events to get that Mobile Story Station at new bases and locations,” Farrell said.
For families who don’t live near base or aren’t aware of a convenient UTR location, Farrell suggests using the app that includes books in English and Spanish.
“You have a recording station right in your hand with the app. The UTR app is three years old. It’s where we can allow families to catalog stories, keep track of stories, and order books. It’s all free, thanks to our generous investors and donors,” he said.
While UTR celebrates connecting over 3 million military families, the program looks forward to future growth and development. Farrell reports that UTR will continue to grow the app to be richer, more intuitive, and more inclusive of all military families. Whether a service member reads a book into the app, at a permanent location, or inside the Mobile Story Station, the important thing, according to Farrell, is that “military families enforce bonds and enhance well-being through the power of reading.”
Visit United Through Reading to learn more about how military families stay connected through programs, events and an app.