Notes From a Reporter’s Desk: United Through Reading

“Once Upon a Deployment” for Books Make a Difference appears here.

 

When the assignment first came in to cover United Through Reading, I imagined writing this type of article to be a slam dunk. I’d read up on UTR, write up my draft, and hit submit to my editor, Terri. After all, it combined many of my loves: writing and researching where books and the military intersect. What I never imagined was the ripple effect that this assignment would create in my own life. They say life imitates art: the notion that an event in the real world is inspired by a creative work. This much I learned is true. 

What follows is a grown up version of Laura Numeroff’s beloved children’s book, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. One inciting action leads to another, which leads to another, which eventually comes full circle. Instead of a mouse, the protagonist is a writer and instead of a cookie the object that propels the action of the story is a commissioning to report on United Through Reading.

Would you allow me to take the opportunity to tell you what my partnership with UTR has done in my own circles and spheres of life–how these books have made a difference in my world? Like the mouse who gets a cookie, but then needs milk, which then necessitates a straw– you’ll see how my own experience in reporting set off a chain of events that has had a profound impact on me and in my own community.

As a Community Connection piece, I prepared myself to expose UTR’s mission: to help unite military families through the shared experience of reading and recording stories. I set out to see how this 30 year old organization provides books and recording technology to miltary families and flesh out the way that these books are making a difference in the lives of service members, spouses, and children– families just like mine. 

Initially, I devoured every word written on UTR’s website. Their mission is clearly articulated and their impact is great: millions of stories are recorded every year by military service members who routinely miss bedtime and other important moments in the lives of their children due to deployments, temporary duty assignments, and irregular and demanding work tempos. 

As a military spouse myself, this life demands a lot. We know the obligations of service and the hit it takes on our marriages and extended family relationships, but the one that stings the most is what we see our children forfeit. They didn’t ask for this life. They didn’t sign on for duty, hardship, and sacrifice. Our kids are in it because of a commitment their parent(s) made to the defense of freedom for our nation. As the world of United Through Reading unfolded before me, my own intrigue and respect for their programming and mission blossomed. It didn’t take long to see how their operation sought to alleviate many of the aforementioned pressures on military families.

One of my next steps for gathering outside sources on the impact of UTR was to put out a Facebook query to see who of my own friends had benefitted from these story recordings. The response was overwhelming. Nearly two dozen acquaintances and fellow military spouse friends reported their own sweet accounts of how these stories had created strong bonds in their families. 

One friend messaged me about how she and her husband made a considerable dontation to UTR in lieu of party favors for their wedding guests years ago; as a teacher and a service member marrying, they loved and financially supported what UTR was doing for famillies. A few friends posted photos of their own service members reading stories over video or DVD with their kids’ smiling faces captured in the frame. 

Several friends shared how, through mulitple deployments– some ranging between nine and 15 months where families are separated– these videos had saved their sanity, helped to set foundations for early literacy, and initiated a love of reading in their young children. One friend in particular revealed that it was the repetition of hearing her husband’s voice reading Gossie and Gertie and Llama, Llama Red Pajama to their then newborn daughter that caused her little girl who hadn’t seen her dad since she was fourteen days old, to practically leap into her father’s arms at the sound of his familiar voice during his deployment homecoming. 

These are the incidents that raise the hairs on your arm, give you chill bumps, and cause you to get choked up. For my friend Hannah, these were not just random board books on her daughter’s book shelf– these were literal lifelines across an ocean via video recording for keeping her family banded together. Hearing these accounts and adventures of books saving the day made me really, truly, happy. 

After collecting some “man on the street” intel, I shifted my focus to contacting and formally interviewing a few of UTR’s employees. First I met Jessica Hall. Not only did our phone call reveal her own passion for the work Jessica does as the Marketing Director, but also we realized we both know and love a mutal friend named Ciara (by way of Texas, Louisiana, Korea, and the Internet) who shares our connection within the Hiring our Heroes organization. Admittedly, I gushed to Jessica that I loved what UTR was doing and explained how I could see it benefitting families at my installation. 

While not deployed, my husband, Ryan’s job as a chaplain and OCT (observer, coach, trainer) at the Joint Readiness Training Center and Operations Group has him away from home with rigorous hours out in “The Box” approximately 24 out of 30 days per month during rotational training. My own kids have since outgrown getting tucked in with a bedtime story. However, many of our OPS Group families have young children who routinely miss out on having their service member parent home in the evenings due to crazy hours and what we all not-so-affectionately call “Box Life.” When I shared this scenario with Jessica, she offered to connect me to Molly Haskin–the Director of Army and Air Force Programming, who she claimed would be thrilled to help me get a story recording event mobilized on Fort Polk. This networking and making of professional connections bolstered my interest in my reporting even further.

After several emails back and forth, long phone calls, text messages, and FaceTiming, Molly and I had exchanged personal anecdotes of military life and how UTR was making such a positive impact. We quickly and whole-heartedly agreed that a mobile story station and recording event at Fort Polk could be a huge success and gift to our military families. While there is a permanent recording station here through Army Community Service, we both loved the idea of a specific event for a specific need within Fort Polk.

At this point, my husband’s command was pulled into the fray as the plans were formulating. We set some dates, nailed down a location, and Molly shipped me five boxes of books, marketing materials, and a Samsung tablet and bluetooth keyboard for my event. Over the next few weeks, Ryan and I advertised and began making preparations for our designated reading area in his office building. I was feeling particulary grateful for a way to partner with Ryan in a way that served our soldiers and families– something that isn’t always easy to coordinate together. 

My story assignment was turned in, edited and revised, and that part of my initial introduction to United Through Reading was completed and fulfilled. What had initally begun as a freelance writing gig was now picking up steam in my personal life much like a snowball avalanching down a hill. The deeper into this assignment I went, the bigger (and more powerful!) it was getting. 

I had agreed to write a 700 word report on a non-profit organization. How did I now find myself in the position as point of contact (POC) and volunteer for UTR? How had I drug my husband into this and how, now, did his boss love this idea and see the impact on morale and welfare for OPS Group families? How were we now on the hook for not one, but two, two-day recording events in both February and March? How was I now responsible for hundreds of dollars worth of deliveries of books and recording equipment? I can tell you how– it’s because books and the power of reading and stories makes a difference. Like the mouse and the cookie, each new day seemed to introduce a new idea and create a wider circle of people involved.

The day before our first event, Ryan and I spent a few hours setting up our recording area at his office building. Channeling my inner bookstore employee, I gleefully displayed over 100 books, making them visually appealing by revealing their bright covers, inviting titles– all for a wide variety of age ranges and interests. 

I brought a plant from home, some patriotic decor, and a little yarn fringe banner to give our area some pizzaz. An offical order went out to the soldiers in Ryan’s organization all the way up the chain of command to the Commander of Operations Group–or the COG as he is known. I made a flyer and shared it in my circles on spouses’ Facebook group pages, my own social media accounts, and by word of mouth. The excitement was building, and none more greatly than my own. 

Over the two days that our event was open, I served as the friendly face that helped to direct service members to the book selection and then I helped to walk them through their registration on UTR’s app, getting their stories set up and recorded. My observations during these two days have left my heart bursting wide open with love and gratitude for this opportunity, for books and the power of story, and for service families in a way that my emotions rarely get pricked. 

I saw dozens of fathers lingering over their book selections: some calling or text messaging their wives to see if their kids had certain books in their home collections or if their young sons or daughters might like a particular story; some read multiple books in their entireity just to make sure the story was one their child would love before settling on a final decision; some Googled book titles and even looked at reviews online before making selections. That kind of care and attention to detail made me smile. I learned about soliders’ families, their kids’ ages, and interests.

As a fly-on-the-wall while these soldiers were recording their stories I continually heard personal messages before and after their readings like, “I love you sweetheart!,” “Stay in bed!,” “Daddy loves you!,” and “I can’t wait to see you soon!” The absolute tenderness that this intimate view of parents telling their kids how much they love them, seeing grown adults humble (and humiliate) themselves hooting like owls and bleating like goats to fully sell the story chacacters to their kids–well, on more than one occasion I had to excuse myself from the room to fight back my own tears and compose myself. I felt like a voyeur to some very personal, affectionate, and sacred moments between parents and their children. I felt so very fortunate to witness this first-hand impact of UTR’s program. 

As stories were completed and uploaded, marketing materials given out– each and every service member thanked me profusely for this opportunity to not only take home a new book, but more importantly for a tangible way to stay connected to their kids while the demands of duty keep them away from the routines and rituals of home life. While I appreciated their gratitude, I felt like I was the one who owed them the many thanks. 

One story that I heard read more than once really encapsulates this entire experience for me. Andrew Clements’ Because Your Daddy Loves You had me reaching for tissues to dry my eyes. The plot of this book follows a young child throughout the course of 24 hours and all of the ways he assumes his dad might be frustrated with his childish foibles. At every turn, the dad proves his son wrong by offering love, help, and kindness. 

The dad comforts his child when he wakes from a bad dream; he helps recover a lost shoe; at the beach, he wades out into the ocean for a rogue beach ball and later builds a sand castle; he goes for ice cream and cleans up the sticky mess; he carries a sleeping child inside the house after a long day; he reads a bedtime story. 

Clements writes of the father, “He finds the book, and starts at the very beginning, and he reads every single word…” So many of the very things this book shares of the parent-child relationship are the very things service member parents miss out on when they are separated from their families. Hearing this story read, the irony was not lost on me. More tears. More stepping out of the room. More tissues. I thought of my own three children and their unwavering relationship with Ryan in spite of the bedtimes he missed when they were younger, the vacations and trips he missed while in Afghanistan, and their continued sacrifies made in sharing their dad with the U.S. Army.

You see, these books and this programming from United Through Reading facilitates something that is meeting a huge need. These story recordings are building family ties. They are creating well-worn pathways of what might become a beloved childrens book to build a child’s library, but more importantly, they are building and filling a child’s emotional love tank, establishing foundations for their confidence, security, and literacy. 

As the buzz of this event has continuted to spread out even farther, I have no doubt that its impact will have implications for years to come. I’ve made new friends and professional connections. I have been afforded new volunteer and service opportunities. I have had a renewed passion to partner with Ryan in serving our military families. I have been able to be a bridge builder within our Fort Polk community as potential future events are now underway in other battalions and at our installation library as well as connecting friends at other installations with information for creating their own story recording events. Ultimately, I have been reminded of the gravity of our own military service and the tenderness and beauty of a simple, shared story and how it can unite a family and help to sustain them through a difficult time. 

Like the mouse who eats a cookie that leads to needing milk, a straw, and a napkin who then decides he needs a haircut that needs to be cleaned up– I, too, think my next tired step is to find my pillow and take a nap! What a long, strange experience this has been! Do you know what the mouse asks for next? He asks for someone to read him a story, which then inspires him to draw— more life, more art–and the cycle sends him all the way back to another cookie. I’m so glad I agreed to take this assignment. I am feeling very full and satisfied in every way.  

 

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