This Small Organization Is Making A Big Impact With Stories
United Through Reading helps to facilitate the bonding experience of reading aloud for military families
November 10, 2022
With three kids under the age of four, parenthood was already pretty stressful for Jason and Mary-Lena Kikta. When Jason was deployed overseas for the fourth time in four years, the Kiktas turned to storytime to help alleviate the disruption of being away from family. Through United Through Reading, an organization dedicated to helping military families bond through storytime video recordings and books sent to military families, the Kiktas were able to show videos to the children during Jason’s deployments.
“The video recordings that Jason did for our children were so important to support bonding and literacy,” said Mary-Lena Kikta, an Air Force veteran and a current United Through Reading Events Coordinator. “Jason was overseas when our littlest guy was eight weeks old. United Through Reading’s video program helped our son recognize his voice. I have a photo of the baby with the biggest grin. These books were so important for our family because it was like having Dad there ‘on demand.’”
United Through Reading’s mission is to unite military families facing physical separation by facilitating the bonding experience of reading aloud. According to the organization’s website, more than 100,000 military parents deploy annually, leaving nearly 250,000 children at home.
United Through Reading helps these families stay bonded by distributing new, high-quality children’s books, the latest equipment, and all of the supplies needed for them to establish and maintain a storytime routine despite the miles between them. Stories are read aloud by service members and captured on video to be viewed at home. Military children are able to see their loved ones’ faces, hear their voices, and read along at a time of their convenience.
“As a 33-year-old organization, we first began with these big old camcorders and shipping out VHS tapes home,” said Terri Mateo, United Through Reading’s Lead Director of Advancement. “In some places we still use DVDs, but we also have an App where servicemembers can read digital books and use our cloud storage for their videos. Our goal is to meet everyone where they are and make it as easy as possible to connect.”
“Having done so many deployments with our family, I know how hard it is,” said Kikta. “As a military spouse, I had so many moments along the way where I knew that I had to do everything on my own. Having these moments where I can turn on a book for a read-along is one type of support that I needed.”
Research shows that reading aloud with young children “stimulates optimal patterns of brain development and strengthens parent-child relationships at a critical time in child development, which, in turn, builds language, literacy, and social-emotional skills that last a lifetime.”
To support families with deployment-related challenges, Capital One’s Business Resource Group (BRG) Salute is continuing its partnership with United Through Reading for a second Read-A-Thon event. In its inaugural Read-A-Thon last year, Capital One associates pitched in more than 4,000 volunteer hours to read over 153,000 pages. A few service members and veterans at Capital One have even used United Through Reading’s recording booth to make recordings for family members. Robert S.— an associate who was previously stationed in Al Asad, Iraq—described the experience of making a recording of “Five Monkeys Jumping on the Bed” for his niece as “one of the more positive and memorable experiences from my time overseas."
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Read-A-Thon became a great way for the Salute BRG to remotely engage our associates from coast to coast,” said Viacheslav Slavin, Salute Ally/Chapter Lead and Agile Delivery Lead at Capital One.
“This has been one of our favorite ways at Capital One to help connect people with their families,” added Keith Gobble, Salute Ally/Chapter Lead and Operations Coach at Capital One.
For both Kikta and Mateo, what gets them excited to work at United Through Reading has been closing the support gap between military parents, caregivers, relatives and children no matter the distance between them.
“We’re a small organization with a big impact,” said Kikta.