Student Achievement

Nonprofit Helps Deployed Parents Bond With Their Children Through Books

By Marva Hinton — May 31, 2016 3 min read
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Thousands of children with a parent in the military will be receiving free books related to STEM this summer thanks to United Through Reading, a charity that supports literacy and strengthening the relationships between deployed parents and their kids.

In addition to receiving books about topics such as aviation and dinosaurs, these children will also receive a video of their deployed parent reading the book they received.

“It enhances literacy in the home,” said United Through Reading CEO Sally Ann Zoll. “The parents are reporting that the children are more interested in books, far more interested in reading.”

United Through Reading has been providing this service to military families for nearly 30 years, but the focus on books related to science, technology, engineering, and math is part of the nonprofit’s STEM the Summer Slide campaign, which began in 2013.

Any child can fall behind in the summer months, but children of deployed parents face special challenges throughout the year that can make learning difficult.

Several studies have cited a link between parents’ repeated and extended deployments and their kids’ academic difficulties.

For example, a RAND Corporation study from 2011 found that “children whose parents have deployed 19 months or more since 2001 have modestly lower, statistically different achievement scores compared to those who have experienced less or no parental deployment.”

And, the problem is potentially widespread. reports that, “since 2001, more than 2 million American children have had a parent deployed at least once.”

“These long separations can be linked to difficulties in children’s social and emotional functioning, which can affect their ability to learn,” said Zoll. “STEM the Summer Slide allows military parents to stay involved in the everyday learning that happens during the summer by reading aloud to their children and ensuring they are reading and learning science-, technology-, engineering-, and math-themed topics, even while they are away or deployed.”

But United Through Reading isn’t just about making sure children with deployed parents retain more of what they’ve learned during the school year. It also has a bigger mission, which is to ensure that the bonds that tie deployed parents to their children remain strong.

Knowing a parent could be in harm’s way is distressing for school-age children, and by providing an outlet for deployed parents to read to their kids, United Through Reading hopes to help mitigate that.

“It reduces the stress in the child because they can see mommy or daddy any time they want reading that familiar book,” said Zoll.

United Through Reading works with every branch of the military. During their off-duty hours, volunteers set up rooms for deployed parents to read to their children. The volunteers also suggest appropriate books based on the child’s age and interests. They then set up a camera and leave the room. The parent reads a single book or more and often records a personal message to the child as well. The videos are then either emailed to the parent back home, if possible, or if not, they’re mailed to the United States via a DVD, which is more common.

This process takes place all over the world. In situations where this would be impractical—for example, on a submarine or when a Navy Seal is involved—volunteers help sailors record these videos before they deploy.

Zoll, who comes from a military family herself, says the organization’s military partners say the program also improves morale.

“So many of our service members who’ve participated say, ‘When I go in that room and close the door, I’m no longer a soldier. I’m a dad, and it gives me just a few minutes of normalcy. I feel myself back in the room with my kids reading them a story.’”

And, Zoll says commanders tell them soldiers who feel connected to their families worry about them less and are better able to focus on the mission at hand.

The program has recently been recognized for its important role in supporting the military. In March, United Through Reading received the Congressional Medal of Honor’s inaugural Community Service Hero Award, and last year, the nonprofit received the 2015 American Prize of the Library of Congress Literacy Awards program.

Photo: A soldier is recorded reading a book to his child. (Courtesy United Through Reading)

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Time and Learning blog.