Thanksgiving is meant to be a time of reflection to celebrate the things in life we’re thankful for (and also a time to eat lots of guilt-free food). I have a lot to be thankful for – family, friends, business success and much more. I’m also thankful for our men and women in uniform. Being a native San Diegan, it’s hard not to have a strong connection to the military. So many in our community are service members, and the difficulties of dealing with long deployments are visible – particularly during the holidays. For the last year, I have had the privilege to serve on the board of an organization called United Through Reading. Founded in 1989, the organization’s mission is to unite military families facing physical separation by facilitating the bonding experience of reading aloud together.
United Through Reading is also a long-time Jacob Tyler client, and we sent the team to discuss the organization’s work with CEO Sally Ann Zoll for our Client Spotlight – Thanksgiving Edition.
Jacob Tyler: What are the main goals of United Through Reading (UTR)?
Sally Ann Zoll: Our mission is a to make sure that every military member has the opportunity to read to their children, through a pre-recorded video, while on deployment. The books and videos are then sent home to families.
The results are quite incredible. It makes the child feel something special about reading with an adult. They can pop in the DVD and there’s mom or dad reading a story. Not only does it create an emotional bond for the children, the spouse at home feels supported and feels like they have help parenting. For the deployed spouse, it allows them to actively parent while physically away from home.
It really makes everyone feel connected, and when the service member returns from deployment, the reunification process is so much easier because the child is already used to seeing the parent.
JT: How much has the program grown since its inception, particularly since the start of Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom?
SAZ: Unsurprisingly, we grew exponentially once we went into Iraq in 2003. We’ve served almost 2 million families since our inception, and now serve about 150,000 families a year. What we’re seeing now, despite the wars winding down, is that our Navy deployments are lengthening and there are more and more smaller conflicts around the world that we’re sending military to. Military families will continue to deal with deployment for the foreseeable future.
We’ve also expanded our reach to include the US Coast Guard. Coast Guard deployments are usually short – about three months at a time – but we’ve learned that they are more frequent, and most are deployed for six months out of the year.
JT: How does UTR communicate with service members to create awareness for the program?
SAZ: We get our message out through a variety of channels. We have a strong social media presence on Facebook and Twitter. We reach out to senior leadership to make sure they know about us. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert attended our Storybook Ball last week. We work with officers up and down the chain of command to ensure they help inform those under their command about what UTR offers.
And we also gave grassroots efforts across the country at the ground level. We have programs managers looking at deployment schedules, local military events and other opportunities to get the word out. It’s an all-out approach.
JT: How has technology enhanced the program over the years?
SAZ: When we first started, it was VHS tapes. Service members would record before they left. We’ve since moved to DVD, and currently have a pilot program in place where a video is uploaded to the cloud, and the family is notified, then can download or watch on their computer or mobile device. The technology is there, but the bandwidth required to upload a 20-minute video is often unavailable on deployment – particularly at sea. So we use whatever technology works best for the situation.
Additionally, one of the critical components of why this works is that the child can play the video over and over again. It makes the family member available whenever they want. There are other means of communication – like Skype – but the timing and the technology is not always conducive to a great connection, and the contact is short-lived. While UTR’s videos are not “live,” they are accessible on demand.
JT: How important is it for service members to communicate with their children during the holidays?
SAZ: Holidays are such a tough time for military families. Our service it becomes more important this time of year. We send out books about the holidays – about four months in advance to ensure they get to service members in time to record videos – so that children can have that parent be a part of their lives during this special time. We also provide service members with books about other important life events, like learning to ride a bike or losing your first tooth, so that families can share these life moments, even if a parent is deployed. It’s a really critical part of the mission.
JT: How is UTR funded?
SAZ: 100 percent private funding – corporations, foundations, individuals, etc. We’re entirely funded through the generosity of people who want to make a difference.
JT: How can someone reading this contribute to UTR?
SAZ: Our website – www.UnitedThroughReading.org – has information about volunteer opportunities, ways to donate, etc. We also love it when people share our story, through social media or just when talking to others. Anything that can help get the story out is great!
We’re really blessed to be able to serve our military families, and to have the wonderful support we have!