Alyssa Cares Press

The Aurora Sentinel

Stronger minds, 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

Published: Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Carole 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 Ranch couple.

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.

“I’m Alyssa’s 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 shirt.

The students nod in affirmation.

For Joe, the speech and the occasion is met with mixed emotions.

“So bittersweet, we wouldn’t have been doing this if Alyssa hadn’t passed away,” he said.

“We’re a 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 passion: reading.

“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 it.

That’s it.

“Alyssa probably 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.

“You can’t 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.

Carefully describing 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 are.”

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 her book.

“That right there, when they light up ... that’s why we do it,” Joe says.