Nearly a year after the start of the pandemic when upstate New York native Christy VanVleck moved to Point Loma with her U.S. Navy husband, Nate, and their baby, Amylia, the young mother was hit with a series of challenges.
It was early 2021 when her mother passed away suddenly, a deeply traumatic experience for VanVleck. Then, only two days later, she learned that her husband’s ship was going to be sent out on a six-month deployment and he would not be there for support at a time when she desperately needed it.
“It was one horrible thing after another,” she said. “I felt like my whole world was crashing in on me.”
It was around that time, however, that VanVleck heard from a friend about a program available to military members that could offer some relief and hope moving forward, a program that would keep her and Amylia, then 1, connected to Nate while he was out at sea.
The program, United Through Reading (UTR), provides recording capabilities for members of the military to create bedtime story videos for their children. Service members and veterans can record a story for their family at more than 300 UTR recording locations worldwide, as a part of more than 500 events held in conjunction with the organization, and also on UTR’s mobile device with a free and secure reading app.
Through partnerships with book distributors and with help of donations from businesses and individuals around the world, UTR sends copies of the books the military members read on the video to the family so the child can read along with their parent.
The main goal of the nonprofit is to let children see and hear their missing parent during deployments and other separations and extended absences from their families.
The program offers several impactful benefits for families and children in addition to easing the stress of time apart. UTR also helps maintain positive emotional connections, cultivates a love of reading, helps families prepare for reunions and can play a part in re-establishing family routines.
“My friend in the group said this program could help keep us connected while my husband is gone,” VanVleck said. “My daughter was only 1, I knew she was going to need her daddy, and I wanted her to keep watching him and hearing him. The timelines of children getting to know who you are are so short.
“When Nate came home from that initial deployment, he read and recorded 22 books, including all of her top favorites. We were up till almost 1 o’clock in the morning. And then I took him to the airport at 4:30 a.m.”
Since then, Nate, a Navy damage controlman, has recorded more than 30 more books for their daughter, and is now a UTR ambassador on his Naval ship.
Betty Mohlenbrock founded UTR in San Diego in 1989 to fill a local need – so deployed military service members could create video recordings of bedtime stories and provide connections for their families at home. Since then, UTR has continued to keep military families reading together – no matter the distance between them – connecting families, says UTR CEO Tim Farrell.
Major Milestone Hit at End of 2022
And recently the organization hit a major milestone. At the end of 2022, UTR reported that it had connected more than 3 million military family members through the bonding experience of shared story time.
“We’ve seen through outreach back to us that of the families we serve, 93% say (the video stories) make the family bonds stronger,” he said.
Additionally, 97% of the families they serve say UTS makes deployments easier – and 98% view UTR’s service as contributing to their children’s literacy and well-being.
“We think of it in terms of what we offer and what we make available to the military,” he said. “This is not something they can do on an iPhone or Face Time or Skype. There is something to be said for that military child being able to see their absent parent, whatever the case may be, and to have that video available on demand.”
While he lives in Texas and is the first UTR CEO to live outside of San Diego, Farrell said it is a focus of his to make sure the organization remembers that although it has grown nationwide and worldwide, “San Diego is where the roots are, San Diego is where the heart is and San Diego is where such strong investment comes from. That’s not going to change on my watch.”
Farrell said Northrop Grumman, BAE Systems, San Diego Foundation, the U.S.S. Midway Foundation, the Armed Services YMCA in San Diego and the Coronado Library Foundation are among UTR’s longtime partners, grantors and backers, who “put their investment and energy into supporting us.”
Farrell served in the U.S. Air Force for more than 23 years and is a veteran of Desert Shield, Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom. Retired since 2011, he was also a client of UTR with his own family, long before taking on the role of CEO.
“It is a big difference maker,” Farrell said. “To be able to enjoy the time when I could see my family live or by internet was great but there’s something to be said for having that recording that my wife could show our kids, on demand.”
United Through Reading
FOUNDER: Betty Mohlenbrock
CEO: Tim Farrell
HEADQUARTERS: San Diego
BUSINESS: Nonprofit military and veteran family serving organization
REVENUE: $2.8 million
EMPLOYEES: 20 nationwide
CONTACT: firstname.lastname@example.org or 858-481-READ (7323)
SOCIAL IMPACT: United Through Reading strengthens and reinforces the bonds of military families through shared reading.
NOTABLE: In 2022, the group passed its 3 millionth military family connected.