UNITED THROUGH READING
"I'm Allison! This is our dog. This is my little brother Michael! Who are you? Want to come in to my house?" Six-year-old Allison is confident and full of energy, even though it's only 9AM. She swings open the door for me and I shake hands briefly with her mother, but soon I'm barraged with a wiggling dog and Michael pulling on my shirt, "Want to see my drawing? Want to draw with me?" It's a typical Saturday morning for the Supples: there's coloring books, donuts, and a little bit of chaos. But to me, it is a picture of the resiliency of our military families, and especially our military spouses. While their husband or wife is overseas, they handle so many Saturday mornings, after school activities, birthdays, and holidays like this one -- on their own. United Through Reading is one organization that is working to make that distance feel a little bit smaller...
PUBLISHED BY BITTERSWEET MONTHLY | APRIL 2, 2018
Bridging the separation and connecting families...
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Allison flips and holds her body still in a backbend. She is poised. Graceful. Strong.
This is life for the six-year-old. This is the result of her weekly gymnastics classes, and the hours she spends practicing flipping around on a pink mat in her house.
Life inside the Supple family home is ordinary, yet anything but ordinary. That’s because Allison’s dad, John Supple, is a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy and is currently deployed. He’ll be in Africa for a year, and he is only three months into the deployment. Allison and her brother Michael, four, speak to him occasionally when they can. But the reality? Life goes on.
“We’re getting through day-by-day. We have activities to focus on every day. Maybe ten percent of our time is spent on the fact that dad is gone. We don’t dwell on it. We can’t,” says Allison’s mom, Nguyet Supple.
For their family, it means Allison and Michael attending school during the day, taking gymnastics classes in the evenings, and participating in other activities on the weekends. They have dinners together. They get together with other military friends, who Nguyet calls her support system.
The one thing they don’t have on the regular schedule? Phone calls with dad.
“I don’t want them to be disappointed if he has to cancel, which often happens,” says Nguyet. She explains. Schedules change frequently. You have to be near a landline. His calls aren’t predictable. Phone calls won’t go through to cell phones. Sometimes Skype and FaceTime connections are shoddy. “I’ve been there. I don’t want my kids to feel that disappointment,” explains Nguyet.
“I’ve been there. I don’t want my kids to feel that disappointment."
LCDR John Supple has been deployed many times, but this is his first deployment as a dad. Nguyet says the deployment is hard on him too. Holidays are difficult. “Because we’re surrounded with family and celebration. He’s not with us,” says Nguyet.
The Supple family’s description of deployment will feel familiar to other military families. Deployment, trainings, and long hours are a typical part of military life, no matter how atypical it truly is.
FACTS BY STATS: 98% of participants reported reduced stress/anxiety among their children; 99% reported a decrease in their own stress; and 99% saw an increase in their child’s interest in reading.
Military families have an extraordinary strength—an ability to adapt to change, carry on with the mission when it’s an uphill battle, and keep their head up during times of uncertainty. They display this strength during deployments, too. So how do families cope? How do they make something so drastic, like a 12-month deployment, fold into an ordinary life?
Strength of this nature is found in many places, but oftentimes, there is one common denominator—routine. Family routine doesn’t mean scheduling every minute of the day away; rather it refers to establishing consistent patterns and connections that families can rely on.
Rituals and routines may look different from family to family, but they can make all the difference when you consider the pressure deployment places on families.
United Through Reading harnesses the power of ritual and the simplest family activity—reading—to connect families during some of their most vulnerable times.
The organization was founded in 1989 by the wife of a Naval flight surgeon. He deployed, leaving her and their infant daughter at home. When he returned, his little girl didn’t know him—a common struggle for military families with young children. As a reading specialist, she knew reading together could create an important bond for separated families.
United Through Reading was born.
Here’s how it works. A commanding officer or chaplain brings the program to his or her service members. The service members can choose from a number of books, provided by United Through Reading. The service member reads the book to a video camera. The footage is packaged onto a DVD or SD card. The service member sends that DVD, along with copies of the books they read, in a package to his or her family. The families can pop in the DVD and see mom or dad on demand.
It’s simple. And the results are significant.
“We listen to it every night during story time,” said Stephanie Keenan. Her family has used United Through Reading through several deployments. “We always took turns reading before [my husband] was deployed, so it just makes sense that we would continue the routine while he is gone.”
Stephanie Eastman’s daughter is 18 months old, and her husband was deployed to Kandahar. “She’s so young. [My husband] is nervous about whether she will recognize him when he gets back,” Eastman explained back in February. “So I show his video to her at bedtime. She always blows him kisses.”
One month later, Eastman joyfully embraced her husband when she welcomed him home from a six-month deployment, his first. And his daughter?
“It was after 2 a.m. before he arrived. [All the soldiers] marched in and got lined up and sang the national anthem. The chaplain came up and asked everyone to bow their heads to pray, and Kayleigh yelled out ‘Dada’ for everyone to hear. No dry eyes around us! She was shy at first, when he got over to us, but then she started smiling.
She definitely remembered him. And since he’s been back it’s been 'Dada' everything. And every time he leaves the room or gets out of the car, she says 'uh-oh Dada.' I’m so thankful for the technology we had and specifically the videos of him reading that helped her recognize and remember him!”
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