Rebecca McKee, lovingly known as “Grandma Becky” to Fort Campbell children continues to bring the magic of storytime to young listeners despite the challenges of COVID-19.
McKee, USO Fort Campbell volunteer, said she wanted to help with storytime because so many children cannot spend time with their own grandmothers during the pandemic.
“It’s an easy way to give back,” she said. “Now, I’ve got all kinds of kids.”
McKee said sharing stories with the children has been therapeutic for her. She has not been able to share an in-person storytime with her only granddaughter, Emma, who lives several states away, in more than a year.
When USO Fort Campbell temporarily closed last spring, McKee began recording herself reading children’s books from her home in Kuttawa, Kentucky. These videos are then published on the USO Fort Campbell Facebook page for Families to enjoy. So far, about 12 videos are available. All of the videos can be viewed at www.Facebook.com/USOFortCampbell.
MaLissa Harris, center operations supervisor, USO Fort Campbell, said staff and volunteers had to innovate the center’s programming to continue serving Soldiers and Families. Before the pandemic, a variety of volunteers from the community read stories to children in-person during a monthly session. To continue offering the service, they made storytime a virtual experience.
“(McKee) was the perfect fit for this with her energy and excitement,” Harris said. “She always decorates. Everything is set up as a theme. It’s always fun stuff to bring a whole environment to the story.”
McKee threw herself into her new mission, pulling out all the stops to be the best storyteller. For Christmas storytime, McKee wore festive clothes and shiny bows on her head while reading “Ho, Ho, Ho, It’s Your Elf.”
Other tales have included Paw Patrol books, stories about animals in the wild or at the zoo, and A-B-C or 1-2-3 books for her youngest listeners.
“When my sister was in the hospital, I read ‘Franklin Goes to the Hospital,’” she said. “He’s a turtle with a broken shell. I’ve even done some field trips. My friend has a farm and she raises chickens and I had a book called ‘The Chicken Problem.’ We went and read in her chicken coop. We had chickens all around and that was pretty cool. That was fun.”
McKee, who is 66-years-old, learned a lot about technology through this experience. She has to select short stories to keep the file size small enough to send.
“At first I wasn’t technical enough to be able to stop it and start it, or edit,” she said. “I would read and then stop and send a portion. Then read the next portion. (USO Fort Campbell staff) did the magic of stitching it all together and putting it out there.”
A new storytime video is published about every other week. Harris said McKee has developed a strong following online. In her most popular video, which netted 1,300 views, McKee read “Count of the Easter Pups.”
McKee said hosting virtual storytime has been an opportunity for her to bond with her granddaughter despite the thousands of miles separating them.
“I send her the book and then send her the recording so she can read the book along with me,” she said.
Families can do the same thing, or just tune in to listen to a fun story, she said.
Yashira Perez Vazquez, Army spouse, said the virtual storytime has gotten her Family through some hard times. Perez Vazquez said her seven year old, Yadiel, and three-month-old, Charlie, hang off of every word McKee reads.
“Grandma Becky is super sweet,” she said. “We don’t know her personally, but we have had the pleasure of listening to her while she reads. My kids absolutely love it. She is a great reader. It’s amazing that she does what she does because our kids get to enjoy it.”
Andrea Kay, Army spouse, said her children Katelyn, 8; Mason, 10; and Carson, 12; also have enjoyed sharing stories with McKee.
“It’s something different that keeps them entertained,” Kay said. “The Christmas one was really special because (USO Fort Campbell) gave out the book ‘The Polar Express,’ so they could follow along with Grandma Becky.”
During the special Christmas storytime, McKee was accompanied by Santa Claus. Vazquez Perez said “The Polar Express” was Yadiel’s favorite storytime.
Both mothers are thankful for McKee’s presence in their Family’s lives.
“We are very grateful for what she does for our children,” Perez Vazquez said. “It means a lot, especially in such hard times like now during COVID-19.”
Kay’s Family moved to Fort Campbell from Colorado Springs, Colorado over the summer. Her mother has not been able to visit because of the pandemic.
“It’s been a tough year for my children,” Kay said. “Thank you Grandma Becky for taking the time to be a grandma to all the kids at Fort Campbell.”
Serving Soldiers, Families
McKee, an Air Force retiree, has been a USO Fort Campbell volunteer for about 2 ½ years. Before taking on storytime, she helped with general tasks such as greeting guests and distributing snacks.
When COVID-19 struck, things changed in an instant.
“I went from being an ‘active senior’ to a ‘vulnerable elder’ overnight,” she said. “It was like whiplash.”
McKee stayed home to protect herself and her husband, Douglas, 77. Douglas served in the U.S. Navy and is a Vietnam veteran. Recently, she began returning to USO Fort Campbell to volunteer in person. However, storytime remains a virtual event.
Although her storytime videos might be silly, it’s work she takes seriously because she enjoys helping Soldiers and Families.
“I encourage anyone who has an hour of free time to go volunteer at the USO,” she said.
It takes about 126 people to keep USO Fort Campbell operational. Hours of operation and programming have been reduced because of COVID-19. However, the need for volunteers is still strong. Volunteers are needed to help with cleaning, assisting guests and checking out materials, Harris said.
Volunteers must be at least 18 years old. To register, visit volunteers.uso.org.
“If people are looking for something to do during the day right now, our center needs volunteers and we would love to have people,” Harris said.
USO Fort Campbell, 6145 Desert Storm Ave., is open 10 a.m.-2 p.m. weekdays; and 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturdays. Face masks and social distancing are required at all times inside the facility. For more information, call 270-697-4144.