I am pretty sure this
is a story about Christmas. It seemed like it, felt like it.
Maybe it was Joe Hemmelgarn
trying to sing and, honestly, quite terribly, "We Wish You
A Merry Christmas" to a smiling group of fourth-graders who,
honestly, did not seem to mind.
Maybe it was the joy
on Carole Hemmelgarn's face even as she fought back tears when she
explained story lines of each book to another excited group of young
children, and how certain tales had entertained her daughter so.
"I think it's the
time of the year," the woman later said. "It's hard. It's
hard to think of Alyssa now. Losing a child is the worst thing.
But I don't ever want to not cry."
They had arrived at Paris
Elementary School in Aurora at 8:30 Thursday morning to set up for
the book giveaway.
Alyssa was two months
shy of her 10th birthday and in the fourth grade when she died March
8, 2007, from complications of acute lymphoma leukemia, only 10
days after she was diagnosed.
Her parents grieved hard
for more than a year. And in recalling their daughter, they shared
stories of her love of books, how she devoured them often at a rate
of two or three a week.
They soon started the
Alyssa Cares Foundation, registered alyssacares.org and began soliciting
donations to purchase books. A year and a half later, the Highlands
Ranch couple has distributed for free close to 8,000 children's
books to low-income students at four schools in Aurora and Denver.
They gave a book to each
of the 408 children at Paris Elementary, where 94 percent are eligible
for reduced-fee or free school meals. The couple now has at least
50 copies of 103 different titles.
"It is a way to
keep Alyssa alive in a lot of ways," Carole Hemmelgarn, 45,
said. "We want to pass along a gift she was given, her love
The books are arranged
on tables from kindergarten-level to fifth grade, young-reader texts.
Each child who comes through the door smiles widely and hands a
letter to Joe Hemmelgarn, 48.
He hands me a stack.
Each one tells the couple they are loved, to have a Merry Christmas.
"I have thousands
of these," Joe Hemmelgarn says.
His wife selected most
of the books, all of which she made a point to read and pretty much
memorize over seven months so she could adequately explain them
to the children.
"Someone once told
me the easiest thing to do after what we went through is to just
stay in bed," Carole Hemmelgarn said. "It is true. The
hard part is getting out of bed and getting on with your life. But
I think Alyssa would want us to make a difference."
Many of the kids hug
her. She hugs them back. It is why the foundation is just the two
of them. The point, she said, is that they be at the schools, telling
After each child makes
a selection, she slides the book and an orange bookmark into an
orange bag, Alyssa's favorite color.
She then asks each child
to share the story with her when she returns, blinking hard to keep
her tears at bay.
"As long as there
are tears and emotions," Carole Hemmelgarn explains later,
"I feel like Alyssa is not slipping away, you know?
care if I cry. I still love her so much."