Alyssa Cares Press

Denver Post

Couple share late daughter's
love of books

By Bill Johnson
Posted: 12/18/2009

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 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 of reading."

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 their story.

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?

"I don't care if I cry. I still love her so much."