UNITED THROUGH READING

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Every year, more than 100,000 military parents deploy leaving nearly 250,000 children at home. That’s 40 million bedtime stories missed each year by military children. United Through Reading connects military families through the read-aloud experience, and provides every military child with the opportunity for bedtime stories.

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TRANSCRIPT

Molly Ness

So, I'm joined today by Sally Zoll who is the CEO of United Through Reading. Thank you so much for joining me today.

 

Sally Zoll

Thank you for having me. It's always a great pleasure to tell our story. We think we have a great story to tell and you're doing such good work. I think it's going to be a fun discussion.

 

Molly Ness

Well, so, I actually heard about your story through the work of Meghan Cox Gurdon in her amazing book about the power of reading aloud and Megan of course was featured on a previous podcast. For readers who may not be familiar with her already, tell us how United Through Reading got started and what is different about your organization than many of the other programs that are working to end book deserts in different ways?

 

Sally Zoll

Great question. United Through Reading was founded in 1989 in San Diego by a military spouse. Her husband had served in the Vietnam War. When he left, their daughter was a year old; when he came home, she was two and she didn't recognize him. And any of us who have gone through separations understand how disturbing that is. How traumatic that was for all three of them; for the wife at home who thought she hasn't done her job, for the husband who's gone away and who thought that his daughter would never recognize him again, and then of course for the trauma that little girl feels because they're this big man walking into the house. She had been a reading teacher and so when she was watching the sailors here in San Diego- you know and ships deploy every six months as they always do, that's how they train- you may not be just a deployment for war purposes, but it's training for our navy and she saw that happening and she said that there's got to be a way to maintain this emotional connection while the parents are away. This is an 89 so obviously, there wasn't the email strength that we have today. There wasn't Skype. There weren't all of these different technologies to keep people together, so she actually went to the navy to talk to a couple of the commanding officers of the ships here in San Diego. “What if I come down and video your sailors before you leave and leave behind the VHS tapes- yes the VHS tapes- and leave that tape behind so that a child can watch mom or dad while mom and dad are away. So, a couple of commanding officers were in agreement to that. I would say when you're getting ready to take a ship on deployment- have someone mess around- mess around I say- with video recording. I'm sorry I was reading a book- I think it's a very different concept at this point- long story short- those sailors came home and talked about the difference it made with their families; that the child was able to have mommy or daddy on demand the minute the child needed mommy. After a nap, you can put that VHS tape and then just as children do- you know- how they say, “read it again, again, again; read that book again.” So, you’re thinking that you’re going to die from reading that book again, but with that tape, you can do the exact same thing and watch Green Eggs and Ham three times in one day and have mom close by. That's how it all started, and the end result was that yes, the sailors really did think it was beneficial. We grew to all the ships in San Diego. We grew to the Marine Corps in the San Diego area and then from there, it just exploded.

 

Molly Ness

Let me just clarify, when I hear you talking about the work that you're currently doing, you gave a powerful example of a naval ship. Is United Through Reading only accessible for naval officers?

 

Sally Zoll

No, ma'am. Thank you very much for bringing that up. We serve every branch of service- the United States Army, the Marines, the Air Force, the Coast Guard, United States Navy- all branches of service- wherever they might go. So, if we have an army unit that's getting ready to get deployed to Afghanistan, we are embedded with them. I say take us forward. We are on Army bases. We’re on Coast Guard Cutters, so any branch of service, it doesn't matter where you are. We are there with you standing by.

 

Molly Ness

Well, I know that there are often times- can be a friendly rivalry between all of these branches of the Armed Forces. We all tune in to the Army-Navy games on TV and such. But this is one instance where there’s no competition between all of these branches of the Armed Forces- anybody can join and can access United Through Reading.

 

Sally Zoll

That's exactly right. Well said, thank you.

 

Molly Ness

There is so much I love about this program. First of all, I am chuckling because as you say VHS- I'm remembering my childhood trips to Blockbuster Video...

 

Sally Zoll

Oh yes…

 

Molly Ness

The old technology of VHS and beta and all that- hopefully some of our listeners out there know what we are talking about when we refer to VHS. I am also a self-professed- I will totally admit that any time I see news footage or video montages of troops coming home and they're rushing into their families and hugging their children and such; just that outpouring of emotions, I don't have to know any of the people on that video and it still makes me cry, so just the emotional components that you've tapped into are so powerful and it's also pretty powerful research. I believe I read an article when I was a doctoral student called What No Bedtime Stories Mean? and your children may not necessarily be living in a book desert where they’re deprived of access to books because their geographic area, but by not having that parent to read, they are in fact in a different kind of book desert, so you guys are approaching this in such an innovative way. So, you talked a bit about how the program started to grow. Where are you currently? And what is your current operations look like?

 

Sally Zoll

We are in over 200 locations around the world. It's rare that a navy ship should leave from any of our ports whether it’s Norfolk or the northwest or the Seattle area or San Diego or any other place where our navy is docked- if they don't take our program aboard. And what's really remarkable with that is that obviously, we are not your typical volunteer organization in that we're- can't rally the volunteers in Norfolk or Washington DC to go in and do this. We actually have to get volunteers on the ships and so the sailors raise their hands called and when they're not working out, they’re at their 12-hour jobs on the ship and they raise their hand, they say sure we'll run this program. On a carrier- has 5,000 troops at any given time. You might have as many as twenty sailors who are actually running the program for us so we are currently- can't do it without them. I talked a little bit about this- was such an important concept to understand how we can actually serve while a ship is underway and that's how we do it. 

 

Molly Ness

And clearly, the people who are volunteering- the sailors who are volunteering- obviously you've got their ….to volunteer their time. They must see the power of the program itself.

 

Sally Zoll

Exactly; exactly.

 

Molly Ness

Talk to us about what the logistics are. What does it entail for somebody who says hey my four-year-old; it's her birthday coming up; I want to send her a video. What happens? What are the logistics?

 

Sally Zoll

That's another great question. And so, what happens, typically, on a ship is that you'll see either video or you'll see posters in the ships that say come to this location. It might be in the chaplain's office. It might be in the medical corps. It might be just in the corner. You'll see big gray tubes going behind you because literally the corner of a ship- it's not pretty, but that- will be sign-up sheets and so you go- you'll sign up and then you go. You may be going in at midnight after you've gotten off the ship and there is your active duty coordinator. There your fellow sailors- your shipmates who say how old is your child? “Oh, he's five. Is he riding a bike yet? You know what we've got a great book about riding a bike; learning to ride a bike. You might like that. What- has he lost his first tooth yet? We've got a book about that- Christmas is coming up- his birthday…”  so, we work with our volunteers to understand the books which we have sent pre-deployment and sent during deployment- stacks and stacks- libraries of books. The active-duty coordinator helps the sailor pick that book out for his child or two or three, and then sits down, sets up the video, and says this is a quiet personal time for you. I'm going to step away and all you have to do is click this button, start reading, talk to your child, make it personal, make funny faces, just like you would do if you were at home and say, “oh doesn’t that dog- does that dog remind you of Mrs. Brown's dog next door?” When it's over, let me know I'll step back into the room and I'll give you your video so now, of course, we have a variety of ways DVDs, CDs are used- believe it or not- so we will use the CDs- if that's requested by the service member. We also will use cards- you know- some cards and we also have a way now that- our app to actually upload to the cloud and then the family is notified that they’re waiting for them. And they can access it and download it. And we also make sure they have the book they can send home. Today- and even with- we have a discussion all the time about digital books because that would make some things easier, but there's something incredibly warm and loving and fuzzy to know that mama held this when she was in Afghanistan on the operating base and now I'm holding that same book in the same hand that my mama was holding.

 

Molly Ness

I didn't know how highly personalized your program was in the sense that you really try to match a particular book to a particular area at a particular time, so if you found out that- you know- Johnny has just made a soccer team or that Annie has a ballet recital coming up that you can really dovetail the conversation that the caregivers are giving as well as the books that they’re reading and that's certainly going to make that experience even more of a bonding time and even more emotional and powerful for both the parent and the child.

 

Sally Zoll

You said that just right; just right.

 

Molly Ness

Well, there's not many things that I say- everybody would talk to me about books and the power of reading aloud. I have a lot of hopefully right things to say about that as you guys and the work that you do, so share with our listeners what your impact is- both impact on the parents as well as impact on the families back home.

 

Sally Zoll

Yes. When we started, we really focused on the child's- really focused on believing that anxiety- that the child was experiencing while the parent was away and that in fact has been proven extremely successful. 98- 99% of our participants who responded to a survey say that it affected things- they that- the child has significantly…. again. I go back to that mommy and daddy on demand; it's when the child needs mommy and daddy you know- FaceTime is not always comfortable for a child and if your husband's going to call you at midnight, you're probably not going to get your kids up and talk to your husband on FaceTime or on Skype and it's not always reliable, but with this- it’s always reliable. A child can always count on me being there reading Green Eggs and Ham when your child needs it so, it definitely relieves the stress and anxiety on the child. The other thing it does, and we didn't anticipate this- when they are going… was founded, but that the spouse who was away, he or she is also a part of it. We always encourage these caregivers at home to video record the child watching the video If you will and then you send that- upload it to YouTube. You send it off to your spouse. Can you imagine what your spouse feels when he sees your little two-year-old daughter climbing up to the computer screen yelling daddy, daddy holding the books and read it again, read it again, daddy. Can you imagine how that feels- that he suddenly feels like he's having an impact; he’s still part of the family at home; he hasn't left and then think about the conversation with his wife and next time they talk when she says that was so wonderful and he realizes that he is supporting her. We had a dad- an Air Force dad who called it united through taking a shower, united through cooking dinner because he has three little kids whenever- whenever he needed- need to get things done he said, mommy was going to read you a story and he would just put in the DVD and we just read the story and he'd put in a DVD and they could all be held up on the couch watching mommy read a story while he cooked the mac and cheese and hot dogs in the kitchen.

 

Molly Ness

Well, we always joke about how we should not as parents use computers or devices as babysitters, but under these circumstances, I think it's totally appropriate.

 

Sally Zoll

I agree 100%.

 

Molly Ness

I certainly hope that both mom and dad- as they're watching the child's reactions have a box of Kleenex nearby because, boy I mean talk about waterworks. I’d be an absolute basket case of emotion in the- in the most- best and heartwarming way. 

 

Sally Zoll

Indeed, and when we talk to our military leadership, they say that we're a force multiplier because the number one thing that our military leadership wants is for our service members to be able to focus on their mission. That’s the most important way for them to focus on their mission- should not have to worry about their families; that's the most important thing that they feel that their family has been taken care of, and that they're being supported, and their family is okay; their family is good and so if they know that, they can focus on their mission than they can if they're worried about anything that's going on with their family. So, when you talk to our military leadership, they say United Through Reading- your effort is a force multiplier making a difference- you're making a difference in our mission as well.

 

Molly Ness

And my hunch is that, when this program started over three decades ago, you had no idea about how powerful it would be- such a simple idea the helps everyone involved that- entire- and family structure to have such reap the benefits of such a simple idea- such a simple idea.

 

Sally Zoll

Exactly and it's not rocket science. It's really simple, but it has really a profound effect on everybody within that circle of family.

 

Molly Ness

So, what's the future for United Through Reading? Where are you hoping to grow or continue your work? What do you see down the road?

 

Sally Zoll

Well, of course, what we want to see down the road is growth to the points that there is not a service member out there who cannot access United Through Reading. Not a service member; I don't care where you are, I don't care if you're in Gitmo, in Afghanistan, Navy SEAL, an Army Ranger, I don't care where you are and what your mission is, we want to make sure that you have the ability to access United Through Reading if you have a need for our services. That's really number one. That’s top of my mind always to that end. We have developed an app  that was released in May and that's awesome because that's starting to remove that barrier where you can just pick up your personal device and download United Through Reading app if you have a military ID- that's the only barrier there is that you do have to serve in the military, so you can interact with your child and then we will- if you decide to- pick up a book and you're in the base library, not United Through Reading, but you're in the army library- you pick up a book and read it when you upload your video, there's a way for you to say, “please send this book to my child.” United Through Reading will then order it and send that exact book to the child, so the child still has the book so the app is really great and a game-changer for us and so what's so important for us and traveling to help us get the word out because obviously when no one knows about the app, they can't use the app and we think it's just the next greatest thing for us.

 

Molly Ness

Well and certainly by speaking with us on this podcast you'll be getting the word out to lots of people who first of all don't know about your program and second of all don't know how you've embraced technology as the way to make your mission even more immediate and even more powerful. So, as we wrap up let me ask you the question that I always end the podcast with every guest that I have on the podcast. I ask them to reflect on a book that was either from their past or present that has been particularly powerful for them as a person and as a reader and the reason that I do this is because my belief is that ending book deserts is far more than just giving books to kids- it’s doing exactly what you guys are doing- it’s creating a culture of literacy where families who are separated by distance and deployment talk about books, have a community where they see each other as readers, and are enjoying literacy as a social event- as a shared event. So, what was that one book or perhaps what is that one book that really has shaped you as a reader? And as a reader and believe me I'm right there with you in that narrowing it down to one is nearly impossible…

 

Sally Zoll

Are you kidding me, just one book…

 

Molly Ness

I know, and I have to say to all the listeners out there every time I ask this question, joy comes to people's faces. They start smiling. You can see on their face they’re sort of looking back through the bookshelves in their minds and thinking through what is that one book and I just think that's just a powerful question to ask people and so I'm hoping that more people will ask and answer these questions in their reading communities.

 

Sally Zoll

It's a great question and it's one that my husband and I often ask at dinner parties because it's so telling about people and if someone says this book, you are- you're like oh, yeah, I forgot about that book, oh my gosh that book. So, you’re right, there are so many books that make such a difference. It depends on my mood- you know. If I mean to escape and I'm on the beach and I need a beach read- you know- Summer of 69 is a great book to read, but I would say that probably the book that had the first major impact on me was To Kill a Mockingbird. And I grew up in the Midwest, in a very small conservative, all white community, mostly a farm community- farm area. And so when I read that book as a young adult reader, it brought up things that I've never heard- took me to a different place, not always a comfortable place for sure; was a very- so different, so kind of hard to wrap your head around, wrap your arms around this full concept of racial inequality and male and female, innocence of a child be lost, all of those things. I think of- that book was the first time it took Little Sally Ann Draper out of Greenfield, Indiana into another space and time, into another world which told me that reading wasn't all about The Boxcar Children and….

 

Molly Ness

Well those of us who spend our lives surrounded by children's literature and reading research are familiar with the metaphor that books serve as doors, windows, and as mirrors, and certainly, that book To Kill a Mockingbird for you was a door into and a window into a world that was unlike your own and had a powerful impact on you.

 

Sally Zoll

Indeed.

 

Molly Ness

And I would be happy to join your dinner party anytime…

 

Sally Zoll

Ok, you’re invited.

 

Molly Ness

I will come not only with a bottle of wine but with lots of books to talk about and their power on me, so that book- when you talk about yourself as a reader, you talk about one book that really gave you- took you into another world and for the kids who are undergoing the trauma and the difficulty and the sadness that so often comes with a deployed parent- you're taking them into another world with United Through Reading. You’re giving them something to look forward- a way to connect to their parent just through videotaped readings which your kids can access anytime. Thank you so much for the work that you're doing with United Through Reading. Our listeners can find out more about your program on my website, endbookdeserts.com. We will look forward to hearing more about the future of the program and the powerful work that you're doing. Thank you for joining us today, Sally.

 

Sally Zoll

Thank you so much. And thanks for the good work that you do.