Deploying just a dash of literary license, Coronado resident Betty Mohlenbrock could be considered to be the Marie Curie of reading and literacy programs. Mohlenbrock is the founder of both United Through Reading, which helps military parents and their children stay connected via a reading program while the parents are deployed. And most recently, she has been leading Reading Legacies, an organization which fosters supportive relationships for at-risk teens and children who have incarcerated siblings or parents.
Mohlenbrock was born in Jacksonville, Illinois, and attended Urbana High School with the children of professors who taught at the University of Illinois. Other Urbana High alumni include the late film critic Roger Ebert and Admiral Archie Clemins (USN-Ret.), who served as Commander in Chief of the United States Pacific Fleet from 1996-99. All three students graduated from Urbana High within three years of each other.
Mohlenbrock said of her high school days, “I was very much involved in music. I was in the Madrigal group, choir and I was in a trio called the Tri-Angels, which we thought was such a clever name. We are still very close friends.”
Going to school with the children of professors apparently prepared her well, as Mohlenbrock graduated from the U of I with an undergraduate degree in Liberal Arts Education and then continued on at Illinois to earn a master’s degree in Education, with a specialty in teaching reading.
Her college days had the added benefit of meeting Bill Mohlenbrock at a square dance when she was a sophomore and he was a junior. “We dated for five years and he went to medical school,” Betty recalled. “We have been married for 54 years and in love for 59. Bill played basketball at Illinois and he was on the traveling team. He likes to say when the team was ahead or behind by 40 points he got to play, but he enjoyed it. Bill says basketball taught him the discipline he needed to major in Pre-Med and to become a doctor.”
Bill went on to graduate from the St. Louis University Medical School, while Betty taught school in Chicago and later in St. Louis, earning enough money for the couple to get married. Bill went into flight surgery and was deployed for two and one-half years in Vietnam. Including time in the Navy Reserves, he served for six and one-half years. Betty added, “It was during that time the Navy brought us here and he was assigned to work with anti-submarine pilots on the USS Yorktown.”
The couple has one child, Katherine, and Betty stayed home to raise their daughter until she had almost reached middle school age. “I continued in education with children with reading problems when we lived in North County,” Betty explained. “And I tutored children and spent many years volunteering at Katherine’s schools. In never went back to the classroom. While I taught, was studying for my master’s, and doing volunteer work, society was changing so much. There was a lack of time spent reading to children. I believe the glue to society is starting children out with a love of reading. Adults spending time being role models, teaching and spending time reading to children is invaluable. We are missing that connection due to a lack of interest and time spent. You can read a newspaper and see the problems so many kids get into. I believe in connecting spiritually with our Lord and in hindsight this was put on my heart to change the paradigm in our country. Kids can’t do that without parents or other adult role models. I decided I was going to start a non-profit on a trip to Lake Tahoe with Bill. We were in the car and I was reading a children’s book “Tahoe Tessie” aloud to Bill. I thought there is something special kids are missing. Bill helped me from Day 1 and I hired a grant writer, a program person and we had interns from USD, all working out of our home. We worked from the kitchen table for five years and we knew nothing about non-profits when we started.”
That effort started as the Family Literacy Foundation, which morphed into United Through Reading (UTR) in 1989. “To me, the mission was using literacy as the medium to communicate with children and create success in their lives. It was a huge vision, a huge passion, and we used our own seed money. We realized that with the military, family separation is an issue. In those days, kids were mesmerized by television and we used technology to bring the image of parents to the home. The technology existed on all of the ships in the Navy for the program and we met with the Captains onboard several of the ships. We started with VHS tapes and we taped parents about to deploy, reading books to their kids at the USO, which was located at the end of the old convention center. We went on the USS Comstock and the USS Bristol County and taped 40 parents on both ships. We were starting to get good feedback from the Navy chaplains and ombudsmen. In those days, the Navy was having a problem with personnel retention. We had to sell to the Navy that you can’t retain the sailor without retaining the family. We were a family support program and we grew and grew. “
United Through Reading worked primarily with the military but was also working with parents through the Department of Social Services and conducting parenting workshops. Mohlenbrock added, “Illiteracy is a problem, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get started with your kids. We took the technology from our military programs and we started going inside correctional facilities 15 years ago. The military program became the flagship of United Through Reading.”
In 2006, a cold call came from the Target Corporation, which was looking to financially support a non-profit organization. They were searching for a program which combined early childhood education and the military. A $250,000 donation was made shortly thereafter to UTR. Mohlenbrock said, “That made us a national non-profit. We partnered with the USO and we did a lot of strategic planning. We decided we didn’t want to grow with physical structures, but the USO had facilities everywhere. We created a memorandum of understanding with the USO, which has been extremely beneficial for both groups. Their volunteers increased our reach significantly. Those two things, the Target contribution and the partnership with the USO were huge for us. At the 15-year mark, UTR started to flourish. Bill and I are big fans of (noted business consultant and author) Peter Drucker and we focused on our mission, knew who our customers were, and we created processes to create the outcomes we were looking for.”
Mohlenbrock ran UTR from 1989 through 2008, and then retired, as she explained. “The military program was going so beautifully that it was time to turn some responsibility over to the board and our new CEO Sally Ann Zoll.”
So Mohlenbrock retired, sort of, and not for very long. “I consulted with some small non-profits which needed help. But my vision for helping children through reading wasn’t done. So in June 2009, I joined Reading Legacies, which already had some program components in place. “We have 12 locations, 95 volunteers and we have just been running to catch up. Strategizing and thinking, which you usually do first, we’re playing catchup on that. The Family Connections program is small by design. We are active already in five adult jails, and four juvenile detention centers, where they read to siblings. We are in a federal facility by the border, a drug rehab program where parents are separated from their children and we are helping them connect. And we are in a fire camp in Ramona, where we have a program for women.”
And there is a second program offering through Reading Legacies called Community Connections. Mohlenbrock said, “We have an active and proven program for teens in very low income neighborhoods called the Youth Reader Program. It is more preventative, and we are keeping them out of a gang problem, if after school they are involved in something positive. There is an interesting dynamic when different groups can work together. City Heights is a very diverse and fascinating community with a lot of good programming. We are working with people with minor offenses, who want to engage and start a legacy in their family. They are building an understanding they can make a difference in their children’s’ lives. The universal truth is parents want what is best for their children. I know that’s the case.”
As for future of Reading Legacies, Mohlenbrock has a plan. “We want to ultimately grow this program nationally, but first we want to expand throughout California. We went into Arizona last year with funding from the Tony Robbins Foundation. We have so much history in California with the Sheriff’s Department and the San Diego County Sheriffs. We might possibly grow the program into the state prison system. Our goal is to grow, but we don’t have the natural partnership like the USO does with United Through Reading. But again, Reading Legacies is only entering our 10th year and with UTR it happened at 15 years, so we are still developing best practices.
Over the years Mohlenbrock, 78, has received several honors. Foremost among them is the Peter Drucker Award for Non-Profit Innovation in 2006; the 2008 University of Illinois Alumni Humanitarian Award; and in 2008 Mohlenbrock was named a Coronado Legend by the Soroptimist International of Coronado.
Her most recent honor is being named a 2018 ‘Woman of Worth Award’ winner, which is funded by L’Oreal of Paris and managed by the Points of Light Institute from Atlanta. There were 10 Women of Worth nominated and they were honored during an awards dinner held at the Pierre Hotel in New York, with 450 people in attendance Dec. 6, 2018. “It was similar to the Academy Awards,” Mohlenbrock said. “It was incredible. My celebrity was Academy Award winner Julianne Moore, who has also written a series of children’s books called Freckleface Strawberry.”
Her award was well-earned as, Mohlenbrock described the process. “It took over six months, including interviews, descriptions of the programs and questions that were submitted. We have met so many amazing people and now we have the visibility and marketing support of L’Oreal of Paris and the Points of Light Institute. The other nine women who won grants are doing amazing things. This is the 12th year of the ‘Women of Worth’ Awards and some of the former winners were there, so it’s like a large sorority. At this point, I am overwhelmed with figuring out how to build on this, but we’re taking it one step at a time.”
L’Oreal of Paris had several of their celebrity endorsers present at the banquet including Eva Longoria, Amber Heard, Andie MacDowell and Arianna Huffington. On a related note, it turns out that creating a non-profit organization is mostly for the young, as the average of the other nine ‘Women of Worth’ honorees is just over 37 years of age. Mohlenbrock has been directly involved in non-profit work for 30 years, longer than three of her fellow award winners have been alive.
Mohlenbrock was proud of those last few statistics and added, “I don’t think I’m going to quit anytime soon. I have a mission in life and until the day I depart this place, I will be engaged with children and their relationships through reading. The thing that keeps you going and engaged is the success of helping one child at a time.”
For more information relating to Reading Legacies, you can visit their website at www.readinglegacies.org, reach them by E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org; or by phone at 619-269-2743. Their office is located at 2750 Historic Decatur Road, Suite 201, San Diego, CA 92106.
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