stronger hearts Carole and Joe Hemmelgarn ” the couple behind Alyssa
Cares” say the books
they donate to students are only a small part of a bigger gift:
A newfound appreciation for reading
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Hemmelgarn, Alyssa's mom, talks to 3rd graders about
kids picking out books provided by the Alyssa Cares Foundation
on Dec. 17 at Paris Elementary in Aurora. The foundation
distributed books at the school for the second time this year.
The foundation will hand out books again in May 2010.
(Heather A. Longway/The Aurora Sentinel)
AURORA | Carole
and Joe Hemmelgarn wait patiently in a room at Paris Elementary
School for the next group of students to enter their room.
This is the 10th class
out of 18 for the day, which began at 8:30 a.m. for the Highlands
Wearing T-shirts adorned
with a picture of their late daughter, Alyssa, the Hemmelgarn’s
neatly arrange the crisp, new books that crowd a handful of folding
tables around the room.
Naturally, Alyssa is
never far from the conversation.
mom, that’s Alyssa’s dad,” says Carole to the
15 to 20 students gathered around her.
“We remember who
this is right?,” she says, pointing to the picture on her
The students nod in affirmation.
For Joe, the speech and
the occasion is met with mixed emotions.
we wouldn’t have been doing this if Alyssa hadn’t passed
away,” he said.
little stronger because it’s further away.”
It’s been nearly
3 years since Alyssa, then a fourth-grade student at a Highlands
Ranch elementary school, passed away from leukemia.
In her memory, Joe and
Carole decided her lasting gift would be Alyssa’s greatest
“The book is such
a small gift,” says Joe. “What we’re trying to
communicate to them is Alyssa’s passion (for reading) and
what it did for her — I think they get that.”
As Carole explains the
rules, several students’ eyes light up.
The rules are: pick one
book — any book from the tables littered with hundreds of
copies of nearly 50 volumes — take it home, read it and keep
had 100 books in her room,” says Joe. “And to hear these
kids say, ‘This is my first book, will you write your name
in my book?’ and ‘Is this really mine?’ It was
eye opening for us.”
The Hemmelgarns pick
the schools based on the number of students receiving free or reduced
lunch and the school’s last reading comprehension scores.
Three times each school
year — once at the beginning, once before the holidays and
once near the end of the school year — the Hemmelgarns hand
out the books.
At Paris Elementary last
week, they would eventually hand out more than 400 books to 18 classes.
“This is actually
very rewarding for us,” says Joe. “Some of these kids
might not get anything else besides these books for the holidays.”
This is the second year
that Carole and Joe have made the trip to Paris Elementary. They’re
planning to visit the schools for several years to come in an effort
to watch the young readers grow.
“Part of our goal
is to see kids from a young age up and getting books in the home,”
says Carole. “I think one of the things that most people don’t
realize is if you’re told that your kids need to read at least
20 minutes a night, we can’t ask these kids to read because
they don’t have books in their homes and a lot of people take
that for granted.
ask kids to go home and do something if they don’t have the
resources to do it,” she says.
Armed with two volunteers
for the day, Carole finishes her speech to the students and turns
them loose on the books lined neatly on the table.
each to the class of third-grade students, she asks the students
to read the first page to make sure the book is “just right”
for their reading level.
Angie Luna, 8, listens
patiently as Carole describes “Stuart Little.”
Angie’s face lights
up when she recognizes the adventurous mouse.
“Is it like the
movie?” asks Angie.
“Kind of like the
movie, but I like the book much better,” says Carole.
Angie proudly carries
her book to a table near the door where Joe records each donation.
“I like books about
animals,” says Angie. “I like to learn about how they
Joe estimates they have
probably given away 7,000 to 8,000 books.
Buying in bulk, nearly
50 large, plastic tubs are needed to carry the books from their
home to the schools.
So far the foundation
has raised about $100,000, Joe says. But he says he’s pushing
the limit of what he and his wife can achieve together.
“We both have jobs,
and we are reaching the point where we have to determine how far
we go with this,” he says. “We do want to be here (to
hand out the books) but we’d love a local employer to come
and say, ‘We’ll take Paris. We’ll provide the
funding for these books.’ That’s our ultimate goal,
to make it part of the community.”
Carole takes the time
to point out some of her daughter’s favorite books before
she died to the last few students anxiously deciding among the free
books, often telling students about the book and encouraging them
to read as soon as they get home.
One student couldn’t
wait until she got home and ran back into the room where Joe and
Carole were waiting for the next class.
“I got that far
already,” says Anhelica Ford as she pointed proudly inside
“That right there,
when they light up ... that’s why we do it,” Joe says.