NEW YORK – Navy Lt. j.g. Michael Wall used to read to his young daughter Kendall every night before she went to bed.
Now that he’s away at war, he still reads Kendall’s favorite stories to her. The only difference is that he does it on videotape.
A program called Uniting Through Reading, administered by the San Diego-based Family Literacy Foundation, makes it possible for deployed military parents to be filmed reading to their children so they don’t seem so far from home. The tapes are mailed to the family, along with the storybook so kids can follow along.
"She was thrilled beyond belief to see her father on the videotape," said Julie Wall, mother of 2 1/2-year-old Kendall. "She got involved in the stories."
Currently available on 65 Naval ships, Uniting Through Reading had close to 4,000 active duty participants and nearly 11,500 spouses and children involved last year, said the Foundation's executive director Britta Justesen.
"This is one of the ways we try to keep families connected," she said.
And Justesen has received reports of how the program is being used by the troops at war. The Naval Mobile Construction Battalions, for example, taped some readings while they were set up in Kuwait.
"They had a reading tent in Kuwait," she said. "They’ve picked it up and moved on now."
Kids' reactions to seeing their parent on tape speak volumes about their impact, according to Justesen.
"Every family I have ever met with says the children will watch it over and over again," she said. "I’ve seen children kissing the television screen. It’s very, very powerful."
But the program also aims to soothe the pain that little ones experience when a parent is deployed for months at a time.
"There are a lot of fears of your parent being gone," Justesen said. "This is a way to show they’re OK, everything is fine, they love them and are thinking of them. It definitely helps with those anxieties."
Though the Uniting Through Reading program has been in existence for 12 years, it has recently grown so that it’s available Navy-wide. The Family Literacy Foundation is looking for funding to expand it to other branches of the military.
A program coordinator onboard each Navy vessel arranges the 30-minute tapings, which are done in solitude. It can be a much-needed escape on a naval ship, where privacy is coveted because of the thousands onboard and the capability for only pre-screened or limited communications.
"It was a little getaway for him," Wall said of her husband’s videotaped storytelling, during which he read four Disney books to Kendall. "It made him feel closer to home."
As the foundation suggests homefront parents do, Wall has already sent her husband feedback about his first reading, new books and blank videotapes to continue the exchange.
Wall said Kendall recently began having nightmares and "saying she misses Daddy." And every day, the toddler asks question after question about her father.
"It’s part of the daily routine," Wall said. "‘When is Daddy coming home? Where is he? Is he on his ship? Will he be walking through the front door?’"
But when she sees her dad on TV reading The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast, Kendall lights up and seems to forget that he’s gone -- if only for a few minutes.
"She claps her hands, she giggles, she asks questions," her mom said. "She is ecstatic about it."