After Her Little Girl Passed Away Unexpectedly, This Mom Started a Book Festival in Her Honor

How one mother's tragedy inspired her to make a difference in the lives of other children.

Nov-2016-IFAS-turnCourtesy rick luettke

On a perfect and bright July morning, I had just seen Steve and the girls drive off for five days in Cleveland without me. It had been one of those goodbyes where you hug your kids, then re-hug everyone, then get summoned back for one last embrace. Olivia had hopped into my arms and wrapped her gangly 11-year-old legs around my waist. Sophia had whispered, “Make sure I’m the last person you touch before we drive away.”

I turned toward the house feeling light and happy. I was looking forward to five days alone.

In the kitchen, I flipped open my laptop and clicked the first e-mail that caught my attention. It was from a reader named Julie Rubini, who’d read about my purple childhood bedroom in the July/August issue.

“Your words made me think of another little purple-loving girl who lived in Ohio. My daughter Claire was a passionate reader and storyteller when she left us all too soon. It has now been just over sixteen years since I gave her ‘one last hug’ as she skipped off to her overnight camp.”

Oh man. I sipped my tea and steadied myself.

“She was just ten. The circumstances of her death were so tragic that my husband and I felt compelled to honor her.”

By the end of the weekend, I’d spent hours on the phone with Julie, listening to a story that was both unthinkable and uplifting. I learned that Claire died from a misdiagnosed heart condition while away at camp. I learned that Claire’s love of reading was inspired by Julie’s husband, Brad, whose dyslexia Claire herself had discovered when Daddy read to her at night. He would sometimes switch the words around. When Claire became a better reader than her father, she read to him.

After Claire’s death, Julie knew her grieving would involve reading. Then, on a flight to a family wedding in Jacksonville, Florida, she discovered a Time magazine in her seat pocket with a story about former first lady Laura Bush’s role with the Texas Book Festival. The festival honors authors across the nation, including Texan authors and those who have written about Texas. Julie knew from reading to her children nightly, and making sure that they knew who wrote the words and drew the pictures, that the Midwest had a wealth of literary talent.

“I turned to my husband, handed him the magazine, and, with tears in my eyes, told him I’d discovered the answer to our prayers,” Julie says. “We would honor Claire by staging a children’s book festival.”

Claire’s Day was born.

Because of Brad’s experience and in honor of Claire’s unwavering encouragement of him, the family wanted to recognize children who are challenged by reading. The centerpiece of Claire’s Day is the ceremony honoring the most-improved readers as chosen by school principals. Each child receives his or her award and can then choose one book featured at the event to be signed by the author and/or illustrator. The first year the May festival was held, the Rubini family awarded 25 children. In 2016, their nonprofit was in 43 schools, reached 20,000 kids, and gave 950 awards.

Today, Julie is a children’s book writer herself and is such a well-known figure around Maumee, Ohio, that she was talked into running for city council and has served for three and a half years. She and Brad have two well-adjusted kids—Ian, 22, and Kyle, 24—a strong marriage, and a life of purpose. “To me, the true tragedy would have been if all of that had fallen apart too.” If Claire had lived, she would be 26.

I look around my quiet house, books piled on tables and stuffed in corners. Suddenly I miss everyone acutely. I tell Julie about my “last hugs” moments before I read her note. I say that thanks to her, I’m glad for those silly last hugs all over again. She turned grief into action, and I hope her resilience inspires others.

On the phone, she is quiet for a beat. “I’m grateful that you see that.”

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