For most of his life, ever since his first-grade teacher called out his name, former Army paratrooper Lance Lambert has feared only one thing: reading aloud.
After years of struggling with a stutter, beginning with his first words as a toddler, “nothing terrifies me more,” the 29-year-old single father from Watauga, Texas, tells PEOPLE. “I’ve jumped out of airplanes and served two years in Iraq. But speaking and reading out loud is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done.”
Still, that hasn’t stopped Lambert from reading bedtime stories every night to his 6-year-old daughter, Avery. To show relatives what he faced every time he opened a book of Avery’s favorite fairy tales, he recorded himself reading Aladdin last month and posted it on his Facebook page.
Touched by the video of Avery patiently helping her dad sound out the words from her bed, Lambert’s family and friends all shared it, and within days, it went viral.
“I’ve been overwhelmed by the supportive messages from people around the world, encouraging me to keep going,” he says. “They say that I’ve given them courage. I find that so amazing and kind.”
Growing up with five siblings in Justin, Texas, Lambert always struggled to speak and was enrolled in speech therapy classes before he started grade school.
“I don’t remember being teased to my face so much,” he tells PEOPLE, speaking slowly to enunciate his “s” sounds, “but I know that I was teased behind my back. As a boy, it was very hard. I was always mad and self-conscious about it and wondered, ‘Why me?’ ”
Thankfully, he says, he had good friends who stood up for him and saw him through the most difficult times.
“That helped a lot,” says Lambert, “to know I had people looking out for me. Still, whenever I was asked to read in class, I was deeply embarrassed. It was one big nightmare.”
After graduating from Northwest High School, Lambert joined the Army and was deployed twice to Iraq. When he returned home, although he was shy around women, he dated and eventually married. When the relationship failed after five years, he ultimately received custody of Avery and now devotes his days and nights to her, taking classes at a community college while she’s at school.
When Avery’s first-grade teacher told Lambert earlier this year that his daughter was falling behind in reading, “I knew that we needed a plan of action,” he says.
“I started having her write her school words for an hour a day, and then we started reading together every night,” Lambert tells PEOPLE. “Her teacher tells me that she’s now making amazing progress, so we’re going to keep going. It’s become a fun habit — a great way to end our day.”
Avery’s favorite Aladdin story has a lot of “s” words, he says, “so it’s definitely a challenge. But there’s nothing I want more than to read to my kid. I feel very fortunate that I get to do it.”
His daughter certainly feels that way, too. In the video, Avery is seen kissing the back of her dad’s head at one point, and by the end of his story, she’s in a deep sleep.
“I’m so grateful that we have each other,” says Lambert, “and I want to do everything I can do give her a good life and teach her to never give up on her dreams, no matter what.”
Now taking a public speaking class at Terrance County College, Lambert isn’t sure yet what he wants to do with the rest of his life.
“But I do know this,” he tells PEOPLE. “Whatever I end up doing, I want to offer my support to other people who stutter. I want to tell them, ‘Don’t trick yourself into not trying because you’re afraid. Just get out there and do it. It’s a beautiful world, so enjoy your life. You have nothing to be ashamed of.’ “