Once upon a time, many years ago, a little girl named Carissa started a club.
Unlike many clubs, Carissa's didn't have rules about who could be a member and who couldn't. In fact, the name of the club described its purpose: the Everybody Club.
Membership was open to anyone, including Carissa's younger brothers, Todd and Phillip, who has severe disabilities, Phillip's caregivers, even family pets.
Carissa made name tags, a club song ("Everyone is here that wants to be and everyone is welcome!") and a motto ("Include everyone, learn and you'll have fun."). You could earn a pin by participating in an event "where everyone is included (that wants to be)," and a blue badge if you "get to know someone you don't by doing an activity with them." There was even an award for the "Highest Achievement in Everybodyness" and an oath: "I, _______, official member of the Everybody Club, vow to include everyone, when possible, and learn," according to the club oath.
Carissa, who was about 10 at the time, held club meetings in the basement of their Eden Prairie home with her brothers and her dolls and stuffed animals arrayed in a circle. A report made in Todd's youthful handwriting kept track of the attendance of members, including Mom, Dad, friends, grandparents, Phillip's caregiver, and someone named "Sata."
"I think that's Santa," said Carissa's mother, Linda Hayen. "Everyone was part of it whether they attended or not."
The record shows that the best attendance was held by the family cat.
Over time, Carissa and her brothers got older and moved on to other things. When she was a teenager, Carissa was killed in an auto accident.
But her grieving mother never forgot about the Everybody Club, never threw away the name badges and Popsicle-stick pennants that Carissa made. Now, nearly three decades later, the Everybody Club is back. This time, it's a children's book with a message of inclusion and acceptance that could be used by, well, everybody.
A life cut short
Carissa, who was born in 1983, was the first child of Linda, a therapeutic recreational specialist, and Glenn Hayen, a sales manager, both of whom are now retired. Carissa's brother, Phillip, was born 20 months later with cerebral palsy that left him unable to walk or talk. Her brother Todd was born six years after Carissa.
Family and friends remember her as an older sister who tried to include her brothers in her activities. She didn't treat them as annoying younger siblings.
"That was very special," Todd said.
Carissa was a top-achieving student, good in math and English, who played the French horn with the Minnesota Youth Symphonies.
In the spring of 2000, she was a sophomore at Eden Prairie High School and took a school trip to Washington, D.C. She told her mom afterwards that she wanted to become a politician to try to help nations get along with each other.
Just a few weeks after the trip, Carissa was killed when the car she was riding in with some other teenagers went off the road and crashed. She was 16.
Long after her death, Linda came across the name badges and founding documents of the Everybody Club.
"When your daughter dies, it's very hard to throw any of her things away," she said.
She remembered Carissa's idea of a club that included everybody and thought "maybe there was a message in all of this."
"The Everybody Club seemed like a great theme for a children's book," Hayen would later recall thinking. But if she was going to create a book, she wanted it to be meaningful and professionally done.
"I wanted to make an impact because I thought Carissa would've made an impact with her life," Hayen said. "I wanted to do something that was in the spirit of her. This is for everybody. This is not about the fact that she died. It's about the fact that she lived."
Hayen had met Nancy Loewen at church and learned she was a children's book author. For months, Hayen hesitated to ask Loewen about her book idea "because I knew if she wasn't interested, I would be devastated."
On Mother's Day 2013, Hayen remembers keenly feeling the loss of her daughter. She ran into Loewen in church and Loewen asked her for advice on how to help a friend whose daughter had died of cancer at the age of 9.
That's when Hayen decided to ask Loewen about her idea of turning the Everybody Club into a children's book.
"My heart started beating really fast as I imagined what she might say," Hayen wrote in the website for the Everybody Club book. "I took a deep breath and plunged in."
Loewen (nancyloewen.net) has published more than 140 books for children, including Minnesota Book Award finalists "Four to the Pole!" co-authored with explorer Ann Bancroft about her expedition to the South Pole on foot, and "The Last Day of Kindergarten," inspired by Loewen's daughter. The St. Paul author was immediately intrigued by the Everybody Club.
"It just seemed like a beautiful thing on many levels," Loewen said. "I never considered saying no."
Love and friendship
Other commitments meant that Hayen and Loewen could only work on the book intermittently. But the project inched forward over the years, a labor of love and friendship, with Loewen creating various drafts and trying different approaches to tell the story. She finally settled on a simple, cheerful rhyming text.
"It's more of a romp than a story," Loewen said. "It's basically an original idea that spreads from person to person and ends with a parade."
Hayen and Loewen decided to self-publish the book because that meant they could control the art and design, something that was important to Hayen.
"Because the book is very deep inside of my heart," Hayen said. "I kept picturing having this book to hold, that this was part of my daughter."
They found Yana Zybina, the illustrator for the book, on fiverr.com, a website for freelancers. Zybina lives in Russia and Hayen and Loewen have only communicated with her via e-mail. But they liked what Zybina said about herself in her online artist's bio: "If you need unique and tender illustration, I will do my best."
Heather Homa, a young Minneapolis artist, helped with the book's design.
Zybina's drawings gently communicate the book's message of inclusivity, with characters of different races, cultures, religions, abilities, ages and sexual orientation represented.
"The Everybody Club turns 'they' to 'we,' " the book concludes.
"The intent was to create a book that would make people feel good," Loewen said.
There are characters in the book who represent Carissa and her brothers, as well as Loewen's son and Zybina and her son. There's also a girl with a scarf covering her head, inspired by Lydia, the 9-year-old with cancer who was the daughter of Loewen's friend.
The book, which went on sale this year, is available through Amazon or it can be ordered it through any bookseller.
Club badges and a bench
Some of the first people who bought the book were school friends of Carissa's who have grown up and now have families of their own.
"It's just a great message for kids," said a high school friend, David Schor, who reads "The Everybody Club" to his 5-year-old.
Hayen and Loewen have sold their book at community festivals and given kids handmade Everybody Club badges modeled on the ones that Carissa made.
On her website, Loewen suggests activities kids can do associated with the book's theme.
Near Carissa's high school, there's a bench at Round Lake Park with a plaque that honors Carissa and the Everybody Club.
It was paid for by Annie Hayes, a former classmate of Carissa's, with money she earns making and selling garden stone mosaics at art fairs.
"I met Carissa after my accident," Hayes said recently. "I was a member of the Everybody Club."
Hayes was enrolled in Carissa's second grade class after Hayes was hit by a car at the age of 7 and suffered a severe head injury. When Hayes got out of the hospital, she had to use a wheelchair.
Carissa "was the only person that liked me," Hayes remembers. "She was the only person who understood me.
"She's my friend, and she'll always be my friend," Hayes said. "I think about her every day, and I miss her."