May 30, 2016

United Through Reading and Thinking

At the Baltimore-Washington International Airport  (BWI) we saw a seemingly endless line of more than 200 Soldiers waiting to check their duffel bags and board a flight taking them back to Afghanistan. This happens weekly, more than once a week. Many of you have been in this line more than once with your family standing by your side, your spouse trying to hold it together, and each of you taking turns holding your children.

Then a United Through Reading volunteer from the USO starts walking through the line telling you about something you can do, after you check in and before you take off, that will allow your children to see you every day you are away. At the BWI airport that ‘someone’ might be Dan,  who like many volunteers, has prior military experience but more importantly he has a heart for families and keeping them connected. He tells you that you can come to the nearby United Through Reading room, select a children’s book, record it onto DVD and have it mailed to your children at home for free.

I had the opportunity to walk the line with Dan last week, sharing the benefits of our program with the Soldiers preparing to depart on the military chartered flight. We explained that the program helps the service members parent from afar. We also said that children feel safer and more assured when they have a DVD of Mommy or Daddy that they can pull out for storytime… anytime.

We had a variety of responses to our invitation. Some knew of our program, so it was a quick sell. There are always a number of Soldiers who don’t have children yet so we are quick to let them know they can read to nieces, nephews and siblings as well.

There are a few who parents are feeling too emotional to read. I met a deploying Mom who said to me, “ I really want to do it but I don’t think I can.” My response to her was, “Can you share with me why?” She said, “I just can’t say goodbye.” I said,”Well, you are in luck because this is not the goodbye program! This is the hello program! This is the I love you every day program, the bedtime story and kiss goodnight , every night program.” That Soldier Mom brightened right up and said, “Oh! OK, I can do that!” and she did.

For those who weren’t ready to read, we shared our Current Program Locations list so they knew that there would be other opportunities for them to participate as they transited to their ultimate deployment location.

At BWI we were  able to also share this experience with one of our partners, The Pearson Foundation. In 2011, they supported us with donations of over 18,000 books sent to deployed commands.

In September Pearson  sponsored a campaign called Now You’re Thinking based on a book of the same title. Now You’re Thinking! is the story of United States Marines in the 3rd Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment, who combined courage and perseverance with essential critical-thinking skills to conquer unbelievable challenges and save the life of a two-year-old Iraqi girl, Amenah Thabit. The story demonstrates how the power of thought can “move mountains” and help conquer seemingly insurmountable challenges.

Three nonprofits benefited: United Through Reading, The Pat Tillman Foundation, and The Mission Continues. How does it work? Pearson Foundation’s goal is to encourage critical/outside the box thinking at all ages. To that point, they have over 200 titles of children’s books available on their site, We Give Books. The site is easily searchable and exceptionally fun and well done. Please visit today and read digitally. Read ‘outside the box!’

A Mom of Many Hats

We recently had a great day shared with Debbie Fink, co-author of A Mom of Many Hats, at an event in Maryland. She shares her perspective with us today.

By Debbie Fink

What makes October 13th different from any other day on the calendar?

• If you ask a member of the Navy family, the response is likely to be: “October 13th? It’s the Navy’s Birthday!”

• If you ask a member of a family with a loved one living with breast cancer, you might expect to hear: “October 13th? It’s National Metastatic Breast Cancer Awareness Day.”

• If you ask Lisa Perea Hane, a mom living with breast cancer and my heroic co-author of A Mom of Many Hats, she would respond: “October 13th? “It’s my son’s 16th birthday!”

• If you ask me, it would be for all these reasons, and a few more.

I was honored to be invited by Walter Reed National Medical Center to speak at the 8th Annual Cancer Art Show. My friends at United Through Reading and the USO were able to attend. My topic was the Mom of Many Hats Book & Project. As a civilian, it was an opportune gift, wherein I merged two missions near and dear to my heart:

1) To thank our Military families and children for the daily sacrifices made on behalf of our freedom (come back to read November’s Operation Thanksgiving Eagle’s blog).

2) To help families and children, who have a loved one on a cancer journey, move from fear to strength (visit )

On October 13th, I had the chance to thank Military families while helping them cope with a cancer diagnosis. As if military life isn’t stressful enough…

What else made this October 13th so different and memorable?

Civilians joined us at Walter Reed for the event. A few of these civilians commented afterward that it was, “the first time they’d interacted with military personnel”, and these Servicemen/women/children didn’t ‘fit’ the invisible stereotype –  always strong and stoic…  A stereotype that many civilians don’t even realize they have.

The October 13th event showed Military personnel singing, dancing, playing music (the phenomenal U. S. Air Force Strolling Strings ( ) serenaded us during our book signing after the event), listening, laughing, and emoting while sharing their cancer-related stories.  October 13th at our Walter Reed event, the civilians and Military present shared common ground in their fight against cancer.

And the invisible walls came ‘a-tumblin’ down. Person by person; interaction by interaction; family by family. We’ve only just begun.

So . . . back to A Mom of Many Hats. It’s a therapeutic and powerful story, beautifully illustrated by Caroline Smith Heming, who took the project on while losing a dear friend to cancer. The book overflows with healing love; collective wisdom; thoughtful pedagogy; child psychology; and helpful virtues. It provides coping tools for the entire family facing this medical crisis.

My head thought to write a more explanatory blog about A Mom of Many Hats, or more about its heartwarming backstory. But my heart told me to share the story of October 13, 2011.

So when next October 13th rolls ‘round, I’ll be singing “Happy Birthday!” to our U.S. Navy; praying for all those with metastatic breast cancer; sending Lisa’s son a Happy Birthday text; and recalling how we helped some invisible walls between our Military and Civilian Americans– walls that invisibly divide our indivisible nation – come a’tumblin’ down. Perhaps you’ll be joining me!


Many thanks to Debbie and her incredible positive energy. Be sure and see her books on our booklist too!

Stats Confirm Benefit to Military Families

United Through Reading and BAE Systems co-hosted the second annual Capitol Reception at the Capitol Visitor Center in Washington, D.C. on September 21st, 2011. Over 150 guests from the House Armed Services Committee, Congressional staff, industry, the nonprofit sector, active duty military, and military families attended.

After an impactful video about United Through Reading set the emotional stage, Representative Mike Rogers (AL) and Representative Allen West (FL) spoke about the number of service members who are separated from their families and the importance of keeping them connected to their children through programs like United Through Reading.

According to a 2010 Blue Star Families survey, there are 1.9 million children with a parent serving in the military; 220,000 of these children have a parent currently deployed. The demands of extended separation add to the challenges faced by military families. Representative West spoke personally about the separation that he and his family have experienced over generations of military service.

Commander Mark Melson, USN, and his wife, Stephanie, punctuated this sentiment by relaying their recent deployment experience where United Through Reading program managers worked with their command leadership to set up recording locations in El Salvador; Sigonella, Italy; and Djibouti, Africa. With three young children of their own, they benefited from having Commander Melson reading storybooks aloud on DVD. To Stephanie’s delight, her children watched and listened to the DVDs again and again.

Remarks from Dr. Sally Ann Zoll, chief executive of United Through Reading, translated the intuitive benefits of United Through Reading into statistical evidence from an online survey of more than 400 United Through Reading participants:

• More than 75 percent of participants said the video recordings reduced their children’s anxiety about deployment
• More than 85 percent said that the recordings helped the deployed service member stay connected
• And more than 67 percent of participants said their children’s interest in reading and books increased after participating in United Through Reading

Zoll commended every organization that makes a difference in keeping military families connected and acknowledged United Through Reading’s strategic partners in the audience. She highlighted the programmatic partnership with the USO that has been growing strong since 2006. The USO engaged TARP Worldwide in 2009 and 2010 to query participants and found that United Through Reading’s Military Program is:

• The number one USO program rated “extremely valuable” by active duty service members and their families; 90 percent of participated rated the experience as “extremely valuable”

• The number one USO program in terms of “satisfaction” with over 81 percent of active duty and families who have used the program being “very satisfied”

• The portion ranking United Through Reading as “extremely valuable” and those who are “very satisfied” has increased each year

Zoll concluded, “We have served over one million beneficiaries in the past 22 years. Our largest market share is with Navy & Marine Corps Commands which run over half of our 270 recording locations worldwide. USO hosts another 30%. We are thrilled with that success, but we also recognize that we have a tremendous growth opportunity in broadening our exposure and usage in the Army, Air Force, Coast Guard and National Guard.”

Erin Moseley, Senior VP of Government Relations at BAE Systems, acknowledged the growth opportunity for United Through Reading to reach more military families. She encouraged industry to step up. BAE Systems has contributed significantly as an industry sponsor. In addition, BAE Systems spearheaded the first-ever virtual book drive which raised over $50,000 in books.

Nine-year-old Emma Reese concluded the program. Her dad has been deployed 44 months in the past seven years. It will be 46 months by the time he gets back from the current deployment. That is a significant amount of time to be away from his family — over three and a half years. Emma’s Mom, Alia, said that the Reese family likes to note that this is a story shared by many families and a sacrifice they are proud to endure since many have given more.

From Emma’s viewpoint, she doesn’t feel like her Dad has been gone that much. She thinks the reason she feels like he is part of her every day is because she still gets to read with him whenever she wants. She simply pops in a DVD. United Through Reading acknowledges that the program concept is simple, but to profound effect.



Emma Reese A Great Spokeswoman

Nine-year-old Emma Reese loves to read. She and her brother stayed connected with their deployed Dad via DVDs that allowed them to read with him any time. She shared her enthusiasm with us at our recent Capitol Reception. Enjoy…


Hi, my name is Emma. I LOVE to read!

Emma Reese spoke eloquently at our recent Capitol Reception

My Mom and Dad read to me and my brother every night. They have been doing this since I was born. I don’t remember all of the books they have read but some of my favorites are: Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, Nancy Drew, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, and the first 3 Harry Potter books. (My mom won’t let me read the rest yet – she says I’m too young.)

Reading with my family makes me feel happy and loved. We all sit on my bed, cuddle, and enjoy the stories together.
My Dad has been deployed a lot. He’s been away for about half of my life. But I don’t feel like he’s been gone that much. I think a reason I feel like he is part of my everyday is because I still get to read with him whenever I want to.

I have recordings of my dad reading lots of books to me. Some of the books were good for me when I was younger. My brother really likes those now! Some of the books have stories and lessons that are good for me now.

Representative Allen West (FL), Representative Mike Rogers (AL), Miss Emma Reese

On the days when I miss my Dad a lot, I like to read along with him. My brother does too. Sometimes we sit on my brother’s bed and read with Dad – just like when he is home.

I miss my Dad, but reading really helps me stay connected to him. I hope that lots of other kids will get the same chances I have had to read with their Dads and Moms, even when they are separated because of deployments and other work.

Young Boy makes a Difference

Many readers saw the photo posted on our facebook page last week of Tyrone and his generous gift to United Through Reading. His mentor from BAE Systems, Suzanne Lynch, was able to recognize him with the following words in front of his elementary school. It is such a heartwarming story and can interest our youngest supporters in becoming philanthropists!

My name is Sue Lynch and I work @ BAE Systems and also am a mentor in the mentoring program that we have with your school district.
I’m here today to share a little story with all of you that touched my heart deeply as well as the hearts of many others that I have shared this with. Last week, during our BAE mentoring program, one of your fellow students, Tyrone Baker, approached me and told me that he wanted to make a donation to the soldiers (for the reading program) and then he handed me $1. I was so touched by his thoughtfulness that I told him to take his $1 back and I would donate $1 in his name just because of how very touched I was. He then handed his $1 back to me and told me that he wanted to use his $1, not mine!

So, I took his $1 and I donated it in Tyrone’s name to a military campaign that BAE had just launched for United Through Reading; this program provides our soldiers with books to choose from that they are recorded reading to their children and families while they are deployed serving our country. The book and videos are then sent home for their children to watch on TV so that they can have the sense that they are still spending time with their mommy or daddy while they are away.

Tyrone Baker, a 4th grader, donated $1 of his own money to our virtual book drive sponsored by BAE Systems

Tyrone’s donation has allowed for a soldier who is away from his family serving our country to do just this and for that I would like to thank Tyrone on behalf of BAE Systems and the United Through Reading organization by presenting him with this letter that was written specifically for Tyrone and this coin. This coin is a military tradition which means that Tyrone is a very special person in the eyes of United Through Reading – Tyrone now stands alongside many of their other friends like Jeff Kinney, the author of the book “Diary of a Wimpy Kid”.

I would like to close this out with a message to all of you young boys and girls to think about how much of an impact such a small thought or generosity can have on others. So when you are walking down the halls of the school and you pass a classmate, remember that something as simple as a smile or a simple hello can make a huge difference in someone’s day and maybe even change it for the better!

At United Through Reading we are pleased to see how a virtual book drive has reached beyond the walls of BAE Systems facilities and even beyond the mainly adult audience we host online. In our letter of recognition to Tyrone we included these words: 

We know that each recording makes a difference, and we want you to know that you are playing a part in making that difference. Your contribution helps us expand our programs to unite more families facing physical separation through the powerful read-aloud experience. On their behalf, thank you!

Letters From Home, Kristina McMorris

 Great news!

 Kristina McMorris, author of Letters from Home, is a huge fan of United Through Reading.  You may know that her debut novel is is a WWII love story inspired by her grandparents’ courtship letters. She has promoted our organization while on her book tour and now has offered to provide a great activity. We invite you to share your family history with us by posting the answer to this question: What would you tell your children about a family hero who served in WWII ?

Please post your hero story in the comments section here on READ! our blog. The best story winner will receive this tremendous Memory Box provided by Ms. McMorris.

Memory Box prize for best Hero Story

It is an $80 value and includes nostalgic items circa WWII -Big Band CD, Victory Garden Seeds, candies, Starbucks gift card, notepad, antique looking stationery- and of course an autographed copy of her book.

The Winner will be announced on Memorial Day. Sharpen your computer ‘pencil’ and good luck!

An Afternoon with Authors

Victoria, our Development Associate and Events Planner shares United Through Reading’s most recent successful event.

Part of our hope at United Through Reading is that the shared read-aloud experience will help children develop a love of reading that will create life-long readers. As reading role models, we teach our children to love books by the very act of reading – reading to them, reading with them, and reading on our own, to satisfy our desire to get lost in a good book. It comes as no surprise then, that friends and supporters of United Through Reading are in fact avid readers themselves.  And do you know who, besides us, loves readers?  Writers!  Lucky for us, we have a few writer friends right here in San Diego, where our HQ is located.

Laurel Corona, author of 22 books including her most recent novels Penelope’s Daughter and The Four Seasons, has been an especially gracious friend to United Through Reading. Laurel donated an author’s discussion dinner with her to our Storybook Ball auction in 2009 and 2010. These dinners have been such a hit, that she and past Storybook Ball Chair, Carol Raiter, thought it would be fun to expand on the idea by putting together an author’s luncheon featuring several San Diego authors to benefit United Through Reading.

Author Laurel Corona

And fun it was! Carol went to work on organizing a luncheon at the Coronado Marriott Island Resort, complete with San Diego Bay views and delightful food, while Laurel reached out to colleagues through her local writing group, San Diego Writing Women. The sold out luncheon brought together United Through Reading friends, old and new, and nine fantastic authors to discuss the writing experience.

Topics ranged from drawing on professional passions and life experience for inspiration, to creating a story for history’s otherwise silent women, to paying homage to family history through literature. Accounts of perseverance in spite of rejection by publishers and recognition by national award honors regaled the pendulum of an author’s experience, and gave guests an insight into the life of a working writer.

Author Caitlin Rother

Guests and authors engaged more personally both before and after the luncheon as authors manned tables stocked with their works, and chatted with guests.

Author Laura McNeal

One guest, who attends at least two dozen such events each year, told us that this was the best one she had been to in 10 years. High praise for the event and its organizers, higher praise still for the participating authors, and, lest we disclose our proud bias, highest praise of all for the love of reading!

Thanks to all who participated. If you know a local author who would be interested in what we do, please contact us – we’d love to hear from you. In fact, you can comment right here in the blog, or send your ideas to

For more information on authors Laurel Corona, Caitlin Rother, Kathi Diamant, Sharon Vanderlip, Jennifer Coburn, Georgeanne Irvine, and Judith Liu, please visit San Diego Writing Women online. Find out more about these guest authors here:  Carolyn Marsden  and  Laura McNeal.

A Black Tie Affair

Victoria, Development Associate and event planner extraordinaire, shares some of her highlights from our Storybook Ball.
 What do you love most about attending black tie galas? Choosing a dress? The cocktails and mingling? Finally getting to take off those gorgeous but oh-so-uncomfortable shoes at the end of the evening? Well, as an event planner for the Storybook Ball, I too have many favorites to choose from:
There is the excitement of securing that must-have auction item. . .

ABC’s Castle star Nathan Fillion with Storybook Ball winning bidder Lisa Winterhalder on a VIP set visit

Or the unbelievable thrill when a bestselling author agrees to serve as Honorary Chair. . .

Storybook Ball 2010 Honorary Chair and bestselling author, Jeff Kinney, signing a book for a gala guest

 The joy in honoring phenomenal allies. . .

Sloan Gibson, USO President and Chief Executive Officer speaking at the Storybook Ball

And the heart-felt desire to convey our deepest gratitude to faithful sponsors. . .

Jeff Mader, Vice President, Target Technology Services with United Through Reading CEO, Sally Ann Zoll

But delight me as much as each of these do, it is the part of the evening that is specific to United Through Reading that moves me most – the part where we tell our story. Or rather, the stories of our beneficiaries. At our 2010 gala, we chose to do exactly that – actors read to our guests from testimonials of families who have been connected through our programs, and who have found that reading together, even at a distance, could unite them in profound ways. In all, we told nine stories of families in transition, families separated by military service, and families trying to bridge generations. Here is one such story that continues to move me:
Sally Ann Zoll, United Through Reading’s CEO, spent time in Kuwait this year with the USO. She met our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines doing their jobs in the field. She watched them at work and at rest and got to share important moments with them. At the USO in Camp Buehring, the line for United Through Reading is often very long but servicemen and women happily wait for their turn to read someone a bedtime story. Sally met one such woman, a mother whose five-month-old baby was home with her parents while she serves her country. This young woman stood in line clutching a storybook to her chest like it was a lifeline. She stood in line for hours and didn’t mind because she wanted to read a story to her baby.

“To market, to market to buy a fat pig. Home again, home again, jiggety jig…”

She waited in line for hours and didn’t mind because she wanted her baby to know her when she got home. She waited in line for hours because being a mom, even while she served her country overseas, was important to her. Sally told her that this was the very best thing she could do for her daughter. But she already knew that, and that’s why she waited in line for hours… to read her baby a story.
“To market, to market for one stubborn goat. The duck flew the coop, and the goat ate my coat!”

It is our honor to serve families united through reading. We hope you will join in our celebration this year at the 2011 Storybook Ball and tell us what your favorite part of the evening is. Feel free to share a comment with us here about your favorite part of a gala you have attended.