— Cara Kisby is an upbeat person and not one to complain. But when her husband, an officer in the U.S. Air Force, deploys overseas, the mother of five feels the strain — especially when he’s gone for the entire holiday season.
“Being alone during the holidays is very lonely,” said Kisby, 35, of Woodbridge, Va. “Plus you have the extra weight of keeping it a happy time for the kids, but the extra drive to do that isn’t really there because the person that’s usually doing it with me isn’t there enjoying any of it.”
Last December, while Maj. Doug Kisby was serving in Afghanistan, he managed to send his family the perfect present at the perfect time: the sound of his voice. Specifically, he recorded himself reading “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” to his kids in a Record a Story book — and power of that gift made his children, and his wife, melt.
“Having that package come when it did just put a breath of fresh air back into the holidays,” Cara Kisby recalled. “My youngest, who was 3 at the time, latched onto that book and would take it everywhere with her. I’m not kidding. We took it everywhere. ... It was a big help for my spirits, too, hearing his voice all the time.”
Maj. Kisby was able to record himself reading the story and ship the book — all free of charge — thanks to a program that allows service members to read stories to their children every day even though they may be separated by thousands of miles. Now in its second year, Operation Record a Story is run by the nonprofit organization United Through Reading and Publications International, Ltd., which has donated 10,000 Record a Story books to the effort.
Service members can stop by 13 USO locations around the United States (see box) to record themselves reading the books and send them back to their kids in time for the holidays.
“Reading aloud is a very, very simple concept that has a profound effect: It creates an incredible emotional bond between a parent and a child,” said Sally Ann Zoll, chief executive officer of United Through Reading. “In this case, it creates an emotional connection that relieves stress on the child, on the deployed service member and on the caregiver at home.”
‘Mommy and Daddy on demand’
For more than 20 years, United Through Reading has been sending children videos of their deployed military parents reading books aloud to them. Recordable story books became an added option in 2010 and 2011. Zoll said both avenues of communication give military kids what they want and need: “Mommy and Daddy on demand.” Children can watch a DVD of Mom or Dad over and over and over again — or, if they’re armed with Record a Story books, they can carry Mom or Dad around with them all over the house, in the car and at the store.
“When your 3-year-old comes to you and he wants Daddy right now, boom, there he is,” Zoll said. “And if the only time your kid calms down is when you put in a DVD of a story Dad is reading, you’re able to calm down too and feel like your husband is helping you. You can take a picture and say, ‘Thanks for babysitting, Dad.’ So instead of getting negative feedback from home, the service member is getting positive feedback for something he or she contributed to.”
The following Record a Story books are available to service members and their families this year: “Dora the Explorer: Exploring Memories”; “Sesame Street: Together at Heart”; “Thomas & Friends: Good Night, Little Engine,” and “The Day You Were Born.”
As they record themselves reading the books, service members are encouraged to talk a little bit about the story and the pictures on each page, just as they might do if their children were snuggled up with them. The reading experience gives children a consistent, ongoing connection to their deployed parents — so much so that kids are much more likely to welcome their parents back into the regular family routine the moment they return home.
“The reconnection is immediate — there’s no hesitation,” Zoll said. “What we used to hear all the time was that children are scared of this big guy walking through the door that they haven’t seen for eight months. Now, when mom or dad comes home, they run to them and leap into their arms, and the first thing they want to do is read a story.”
Reading with a flashlight at night
United Through Reading is a big proponent of reading aloud to young children, regardless of a family’s specific circumstances. The organization is quick to point out some startling statistics: less than half (47.8 percent) of children age 5 and younger are read to every day by their parents or other family members, and 34 percent of children entering kindergarten cannot identify letters of the alphabet by name.
“We know that reading aloud to a child before the age of 5 significantly increases their success in school,” Zoll said.
In the case of military parents who are separated from their kids for months on end, reading aloud essentially provides a fire hose of nurturing and encouragement during the time spent apart.
Katilynn Kisby, the oldest of Cara and Doug Kisby’s five kids, said the “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” book and reading-aloud videos from her Dad helped her endure her father’s three deployments.
“When you’d feel, like, lonely and you’d want to hear something from him, you could listen to him talk,” said Katilynn, who will turn 12 in December.
Katilynn’s youngest sister Brooklynn, now 4, was so attached to the “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” book during her Dad’s last deployment that Katilynn would help her read it with a flashlight at night.
“Christmas was hard,” Katilynn said. “You remember the other Christmases and holidays and you think, ‘He was here last time — where is he now?’
“You have a lot of mixed emotions. You feel sad, and then really proud of him, and then lonely. ... The recorded books are good because you can have some part of you stay with your kids. And then if you feel sad or you have a bad day at school, you’ve got your Dad.”