SAN DIEGO – Five-year-old Dena Morton, dainty, serious and shy as a fawn, speaks in a whisper to strangers. It is her big brother Dane, 11, who does the talking, while 2-year-old Damon plays peek-a-boo. Dane explains how difficult it is for them to have their father gone.
Their father, Craig Morton, is a career Navy engineer who has been stationed in the Persian Gulf for seven months. Their most regular contact with him lately has been through nightly television appearances: Before they go to sleep each evening, their mother, Kim, pops in a video of their father reading a book to them.
Each member of the family seems to get something a little different from the bedtime reading sessions.
For Dane, they are a mixed blessing. The videos offer comfort, but images of the father he can’t reach also make him wistful. “I really don’t like to talk about my father that much because then I miss him even more,” he said.
Little Damon, however, loves the tapes of “Thomas the Tank Engine” stories, and Dena likes the girlie books – especially if they involve princesses.
The Morton family of San Diego is among 35,000 military families participating in a program that provides books and equipment for deployed personnel to videotape themselves reading to their children.
Service members often send the books they read on videotape back home so the children can follow along. The parent at home then videotapes the children watching and sends it back to the ship for the spouse to see.
Called United Through Reading, a project of the San Diego-based Family Literacy Foundation, the videotape program was started by Betty Mohlenbrock during the first Gulf War. Working mostly with the Navy and the Marines, the foundation trains deploying personnel and volunteers at home to manage the program while ships are under way. A grant from Target Corp. will allow the program to expand to the other military branches.
Morton, 38, has read dozens of books on video for his children.
Making the videos is a little awkward, Morton e-mailed from aboard, but they add an element of normality to his children’s lives because he reads to them nightly when home.
“I am not that social, and talking to a camera seems weird – especially because normally there are people working in the space we record in, behind the scenes,” he wrote. “Kim has told me the kids love watching the videos, so it makes me feel good to do something that is helping her at home.”
Mohlenbrock, a former teacher, started the program to knit literacy with family bonding.
She speaks from personal experience. When she was a child, Mohlenbrock’s father was gone for two years during World War II. Her husband, a Navy doctor, was deployed during the Vietnam War.
“Our daughter was 2, and upon his return, she did not recognize him,” Mohlenbrock said.