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Alumna Betty Mohlenbrock founds two literacy organizations, honored by Congressional Medal of Honor Society

by Belinda Nam / May 17, 2016

Betty J. Mohlenbrock

Thinking back to the education she received at Illinois, Betty J. Mohlenbrock ’62 Elem.Ed., Ed.M. ’64, said the instruction and training she received in the College of Education fueled her desire to start a nonprofit organization in 2010 called Reading Legacies.

“The University of Illinois not only prepared me for teaching, but it also prepared me for the importance of my specialty within education,” said Mohlenbrock, the president of Reading Legacies. 

Reading Legacies staff members work with disadvantaged children and children who have incarcerated mothers or fathers. The organization focuses on at-risk children who are vulnerable to the cycles of illiteracy, poverty, and incarceration if they aren’t engaged in positive educational and emotional connections with their parents.

Mohlenbrock, the University of Illinois Alumni Humanitarian recipient in 2008, said she started Reading Legacies to focus on re-institutionalizing and reprioritizing the act of reading aloud at home: “Reading Legacies is an extension of my larger vision for children.”

Mohlenbrock’s interest in the reading field was piqued by the results of a research project done through a federal grant to the Center for the Study of Reading, headed by Dr. Richard Anderson, a professor emeritus in the Department of Educational Psychology. The results were published in “Becoming a Nation of Readers” in 1989, and they substantiated the importance of reading for children early on and reinforced the idea that reading early to children has numerous positive effects on them and their families.

The results of the study resonated with Mohlenbrock after she taught in classrooms in Illinois and Missouri, and she would go on to influence countless budding readers. Mohlenbrock said she is grateful that the College provided her with supportive professors and a community of people who believed in her. She later applied similar assistance to the children in her own third-grade classrooms.

“There’s a universal truth that I observed over the years of serving, and that is that parent’s want the best for their children,” Mohlenbrock said. “Parents usually want their children to have better lives than they had. The appreciation, the gratitude, and the individual life changes are heartwarming, and that’s what keeps me going.”

Mohlenbrock’s family life revolved around education. Her father was a principal; her mother was a third grade teacher. She emulated her parents’ path and focused her learning in the College on reading and literacy. Her first nonprofit organization, United Through Reading, uses the same read-aloud experience for deployed military personnel and was awarded the first-ever Citizens Honor Award to an organization by the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.

The Education at Illinois alumna is proud that her nonprofit ideas stemmed from being a teacher. She landed a solid job directly after college and then set about positively changing the education system, using the practical College of Education experience she gained from being in a classroom and recognizing the differences between children who were prepared for school and those who weren’t.

“I wanted to make a larger change, a societal change, and an attitude change with families, she said.

Mohlenbrock encourages educators to see the impact they have on students in their classrooms and through their relationships with family, friends, and community. Her commitment, dedication, and passion for changing foundational problems and helping children in need have made her a highly respected educator.

“It goes beyond the classroom. It is truly a legacy that teachers are creating,” Mohlenbrock said.