Betty J. Mohlenbrock
United Through Reading
San Diego, California
When Betty J. Mohlenbrock was 3, her father left to serve in the Navy in World War II, a proud but difficult time for her family. History repeated itself in the Vietnam era when she was a young wife and mother, and her husband, a flight surgeon for the Navy, was gone so long that their 2-year-old daughter didn’t recognize him on his return.
Those experiences led Betty, a reading specialist from a long line of teachers, to found United Through Reading in 1989. Today its simple but powerful mission is: Film parents on duty for the military reading books to their children, and send DVDs home so the kids can read along with their own copy of the book, thus fostering both familial bonds and essential reading skills. Many young children talk back to the on-screen image and take the DVDs to bed with them; one DVD prompted a communication breakthrough with an autistic son. Because children thrive on repetition, seeing and hearing their parents over and over helps ease the pain of separation.
"I believe very strongly that reading, and particularly reading together, is the glue of our culture, starting in the family," Betty says. "It establishes the joy of reading in children’s hearts." The organization (with First Lady Laura Bush as honorary chair of its Military Program) has served 460,000, expanding to children with parents in prison and to children whose grandparents live far away. In one instance, a mother who would not permit contact between her son and his incarcerated father relented because of the program. Today the father and son are rebuilding a relationship through DVDs and phone calls.
United Through Reading’s goal is to expand nationally into all armed service branches, says Betty, whose slogan is "Onward and Upward!" What does this visionary do in her down time? Read the Harry Potter and Narnia books to her grandchildren, of course.