Reading program keeps military families connected
June 21, 2012
FORT JACKSON, S.C. -- For almost a decade, United Through Reading has been helping military parents maintain a connection to their children during deployment. Last year, United Through Reading partnered with USO South Carolina to bring the program to McCrady Training Center, setting up shop in a former day room at the camp's USO office.
"For these young children, it's so important for them to be able to see their parents' faces and hear their voices," said Joanie Thresher, director of USO South Carolina. "When they come home, they haven't forgotten their face or their voice, and they're not as afraid."
Thresher said United Through Reading is a tax-exempt nonprofit organization that partnered with the USO nine years ago, but didn't begin on Fort Jackson until last fall.
"We've had several hundred Soldiers and Sailors take part since we started in September," said Katie Kennedy, USO programs manager.
USO representatives visit the post every three weeks to stage and record men and women reading stories to children. Last Sunday, 32 people spent the day recording readings of 90 books.
"We have a library of books at Camp McCrady in our USO office there," Kennedy said. "The person who is getting ready to deploy goes into that room and selects a book based on the child's age. We then record (the person) on a DVD reading that book to the child, and we send the book and DVD to that child. Of course, it's all free."
"It can take anywhere from five minutes to five hours, depending on how many children (the service members) have," Thresher said. "They can read one book per child and can record up to 30 minutes per DVD to read that book."
Master Chief Petty Officer Mark Seifert, senior enlisted leader of the Navy Individual Augmentee Center Training at Fort Jackson, said participants don't always record stories for their own children.
"I've done it myself for my granddaughter for her second birthday, which was this month," Seifert said. "As a participant, it's pretty awesome. It's a wonderful thing."
Kennedy said the book and disc are usually mailed within the week, but that the delivery time can be scheduled to fit a family's needs. Thresher said National Guard troops sometimes train at McCrady Training Center several months prior to deployment, and need the packages to be delivered at a later date.
"They've asked us not to mail them until they are 'boots on the ground' to wherever they're going," Thresher said. "We abide by whatever their desire is and will mail them when they've asked us to."
Thresher said the video recording isn't limited to parents simply reading. The room is designed with a variety of activities in mind.
"The room is gorgeous," Thresher said. "They can write on the chalkboard, play with the stuffed animals, wish their children good night ... reading the book is important, but so is the interaction that child had with the parent through the DVD."
The USO accepts donations of new books, but United Through Reading maintains a list of approved titles that are used in the program.
"We also need postage," Thresher said. "As a nonprofit, we have to be able to raise those monies to ship these books. Katie has started programs with schools and different organizations where they do Pennies for Postage or different fundraisers, so that we can get these books home for the troops."
"We had a Soldier that had just had a baby the week before, and he was going to be deployed for nine months to a year," Thresher said. "He said 'Thank you for letting me do this, for letting me be part of my child's life.' Without support from the community, this is something we wouldn't be able to do."
Seifert said digital media has done a lot to connect military families during the last decade, but there's still nothing like receiving a letter.
"That's what makes snail mail special," he said. "It's more personal when you get an actual letter."