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Field Talk is a monthly blog post sharing the voices of early childhood providers who serve or have served military families of young children with disabilities (birth to 5 years old).  We hope you find it to be educational, personable, and encouraging.

OneOp is thrilled to have the opportunity to talk with Betty Mohlenbrock and learn more about what she’s been doing to help children and families in her career. This month, we share excerpts from that conversation with you!

Betty graduated from the University of Illinois. Through her early career she developed a strong belief in the importance of family relationships and maintaining strong bonds within a family. She has since worked tirelessly to design programs that promote these family relationships through reading, despite various obstacles a family might be facing.

In 1990, she began a military outreach program called United Through Reading that uses video to virtually bring deployed parents into the home to read to their children. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, multiple branches of service and United Service Organizations (USO) widely embraced this program across the globe. In 2016, Betty’s work as the founder and CEO of United Through Reading earned her The Congressional Medal of Honor Society Community Service Hero Award.

The following are some of Betty’s thoughts and comments about her experiences.

Can you please describe United Through Reading’s ‘conception/birth’? For example, when did you first get the idea to start it and why? What sparked you? How did you find funding? What challenges did you face in starting it, if any?

My nonprofit journey started officially in 1989 when I formed the Family Literacy Foundation (later to become United Through Reading). I continue under the umbrella of Reading Legacies today. The mission has always been to facilitate supportive relationships for children through read-aloud experiences so that children can learn to love reading and feel the stability and confidence of caring relationships.

I grew up in Champaign-Urbana, IL as the daughter of two educators. They were fabulous role models in every way, and they instilled in me an interest and passion for children at an early age.

I studied education at the University of Illinois, and went on to get my Master’s Degree in Education with a special focus on the Teaching of Reading. I met and married Bill Mohlenbrock when he was a student at the University of Illinois as well.   After graduating, I taught third grade for three years and then left the classroom to raise a family while I tutored children with reading difficulties. Eventually, my husband’s career took us to St. Louis for medical school where I went back to teaching.

While raising our daughter and working with other children through the local public school, I became acutely aware of both the benefits of reading to children and the struggles that many children were experiencing when they have missed out on supportive read-aloud time with family and other adults. My husband, Bill, and I discussed what could be done to serve this population of children and families.

During this time, the Vietnam War occurred and Bill went into the Navy as a Flight Surgeon. This Navy experience took us to San Diego, CA where Bill then deployed for ten months. Our daughter turned two years old while he was deployed and when he returned she did not know him. It was heartbreaking. That experience indelibly imprinted on our hearts and caused us to enter into another discussion as to how to solve this problem for children, as well.

We formed the Family Literacy Foundation (now United Through Reading) with the vision to help all children in our country, starting with the military community. It was based on my personal experience as a Navy daughter and spouse. The journey is discussed in more detail in this historical timeline, which states that, “In 1990, [Betty Mohlenbrock] began a military outreach program utilizing video technology to bring the visual image and voice of the parent into the home while separated from the family…”

What were your goals for the project and how have those goals evolved?

The original goals for the project were very clear and quite simple: Instill the love of reading in children and provide stable, comforting relationships for them through the bonding experience of reading aloud with them. Those goals have never changed – and the mission has not wavered either. I attribute the success of these endeavors to my ability to stay true to the mission all of these years. This requires discipline and education for all involved on the team. A strong team is essential in any successful endeavor.

What outcomes did you see emerge from United Through Reading?

The outcomes have been astounding and consistent:

  • Children became more interested in books and reading
  • They did better in school
  • Their relationships with their parents, other family members, and community members became stable and positive

What are your current goals/dreams for UTR?

My current goals and dreams are much larger than UTR. All branches embraced the military program around 2006. Target Corporation discovered our organization, under its original name Family Literacy Foundation, that same year. They became our national sponsor at a very generous dollar amount. This put us on the map and allowed us to take the program to all branches on bases and installations all over the world. The other key ingredient in our growth was our alliance with the United Service Organization (USO). This wonderful organization was looking for quality family-focused programs and we were looking for facilities around the world. This was a match made in heaven. Also in 2006, the Peter Drucker School of Management, out of 500 nonprofit competitors, selected us for our Unique Innovative Program called “United Through Reading.” Our organization then decided to take the name of our program for our overall organizational name.

What other projects have you worked on, or are you currently working on, that serve children in unique circumstances?

While waiting for the military program to take off, we had programs that reached out to at-risk teens to learn about volunteerism through reading to young children regularly after school. We also reached out to children of incarcerated parents as they are vulnerable to school failure and other cycles of failure without parents in their lives.

When I retired from United Through Reading, the organization decided to focus exclusively on our military program and asked if I wanted to do something with the other programs. Of course I said yes and came out of retirement to start Reading Legacies. Reading Legacies has the same mission of reaching out to children facing difficult situations in order to help prevent future struggles in reading, education, and life. With hundreds of volunteers giving of their time throughout San Diego County, we have served over 15,000 children and their family members by providing close to 30,000 shared-reading program experiences for them. Our Reading Legacies programs were launched in 2010.

Military families wishing to participate in United Through Reading’s program can find information about how to do so here.

Those wanting to support United Through Reading’s mission and programming can learn more here.