Young reader's love lives on

Column by Ann Macari Healey

Ann Macari Healey
Ann Macari Healey
Posted

On book selection day, one of the most special days at Iowa Elementary in Aurora, almost 2,000 new stories crowd the school library.

There's “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.” And “Misty of Chincoteague.” And “The Good Dog.” And so many more.

But the best story isn't in a book.

It's the one being written every time Carole and Joe Hemmelgarn walk through the doors, hauling their load of books to lovingly place into the hands of every child there.

It's the one being written every time students ask about Alyssa, their 9-year-old daughter.

“Do you miss her?”

“Are you sad?”

It's the one being written with every hug Carole and Joe, and the children, give to each other.

“It's a gift,” Principal LuAnn Tallman says. “It's a relationship. Someone else cares about them.”

And someone else cares about Alyssa, who died suddenly six years ago, breaking her family's hearts.

“They talk of her as a personal friend,” Tallman says of her students. “We really consider Alyssa a part of our school.”

That means everything to Joe and Carole.

“As the years go by, people don't ask anymore,” Carole says. “Kids are amazing. They're not afraid to ask ….”

If you asked, you'd hear a story about loss and sorrow, but also about hope. And love. And books.

It begins, of course, with Alyssa.

Doctors diagnosed the leukemia on Feb. 26, 2007. She was two months shy of her 10th birthday when she died 10 days later of complications from the treatment.

“The heartbreak, the heartache ….” Joe's voice trails off.

Her bedroom, still as it was when she last slept in it, reflects the boundless enthusiasm and diverse interests that endeared her to so many. Under the bed is the board with the intricate city she spent a whole day folding out of scrap paper. In a large shadow box on the wall are the colorful googly-eyed puff ball creatures she made for each holiday, a picture of her favorite go-with-her-everywhere white teddy bear with the red heart called Valentine, clothespin dolls she created, poems she wrote for her classes at Fox Creek Elementary in Highlands Ranch.

She titled one “Upside Down.”

Yesterday my brain flipped upside down

And my train of thought crashed

And thirty of my brain cells died …

So please excuse my attention span in Math.

“She was a goofy kid,” Joe says. At the beginning of fourth grade, she started waking up at 4:30 every morning. “She made her breakfast, fed her lizard, played the guitar. It was almost as if she felt `I'm running out of time here.' ”

Her best friend was her younger brother, Griffin, now 12. Smiley and fun-loving, Alyssa grew her hair to cut it off for wigs for cancer patients. She loved to ski, play soccer — and read. A book she was reading when she died, “The Fairy's Return and Other Princess Tales,” still rests on her dresser.

That last Christmas, she had written her parents a note. Dear Mom and Dad, Thank you for caring for me. And loving me. Stay warm and help old and poor. Thank you. Love, Alyssa. Merry Christmas.

For Carole and Joe, the words took on new meaning after her death.

“When parents lose a child,” Carole says, “there's this need to give back or do something.”

They combined Alyssa's love for reading with her compassion for the less fortunate and, a year later, in 2008, the Alyssa Cares Foundation was born. They decided to take books to schools where most of the students qualified for free and reduced lunch, a marker of poverty, and where reading scores were low.

Iowa Elementary was the first school. Today, four more elementaries participate — Harrington, Doull and Swansea in Denver, and Paris, also in Aurora. Carole and Joe, with Griffin and their volunteers, visit each school three times a year and bring enough books to give every child — from kindergarten to fifth grade — one to take home, each time. So far, they have distributed more than 30,000 books, all bought with donations from individuals and corporations.

“We tell Alyssa's story, about her love for reading,” Joe says. “The book is our way of having the introduction. We talk a lot about what it can do for you in your life. … The gateway to learning is reading, and everything becomes a little easier if you can read.”

But something else, a little bit magical, blossomed along the way.

“We did not see how they would connect with Alyssa,” Carole says. “She's like this mentor. They want to read for her. They say, `We want to be like you, Alyssa.'”

And they want to share their stories, many of which, like Carole's and Joe's, are of struggles and loss. “Storytelling,” Carole says, “is so powerful.”

LuAnn Tallman, the principal: “The books are important, but it's Carole's and Joe's relationship with the children that has made the biggest difference in their reading.”

Carole and Joe don't forget. “They will recognize the kids and say, `We remembered this book for you,'” Tallman says. “They're willing to give freely of themselves to make these kids feel good about reading and feel good about life.”

The connection is evident in the plastic bin under Alyssa's bed, packed tightly with more than 2,000 letters from children at the schools. A colorful wire sculpture that depicts Alyssa reading, from Harrington Elementary, sits on her dresser. Iowa Elementary's library is now named after her.

The foundation, Joe says simply, “keeps her memory alive. It's creating some type of legacy, and I guess we just didn't want her story to end.”

Every Christmas, Carole places under the tree a stack of gift-wrapped books for Alyssa. One by one, she'll read them throughout the year, in the quiet of Alyssa's bedroom or the loft at the cabin or her gravesite.

“I do read out loud and I talk to her,” Carole says. “I ask her what she thinks about the book. … It's a connection — the book — and I don't know why.”

Perhaps it just keeps the door open.

Joe likes to tell the kids at the schools “every book you open, the more doors you open, and the more doors open for you.”

One day, a young boy came up to him, book in hand. He turned a page. “Mr. Joe,” he said, “I'm opening a door here.” The boy smiled.

Joe smiled at the memory.

A connection made.

One more line in a story being written one book at a time, one child at a time, by a little girl and the family who misses her.

That's a story of hope. And of love.

And that's the best story of all.

To learn more about the Alyssa Cares Foundation, go to www.AlyssaCares.org.

Ann Macari Healey's column about people, places and issues of everyday life appears every other week. She can be reached at ahealey@ourcoloradonews.com or 303-566-4110.