Little girl's lunchbox notes inspire outpouring of love after her father dies
It started as a mom's desire to impart some "old-lady wisdom" to her daughter as she entered the great big world of kindergarten, but the simple act has sparked widespread support for a little girl going through some extremely tough times.
"I just wanted to do something special for her," Julie Clarke told InsideEdition.com. "I thought I could save them for her and make them into a book."
What Clarke did was craft a daily note, illustrated in bright markers and funny drawings, which she tucked inside Amelia's lunchbox. Some were deep, some were silly, but each was written with love and each carried a life lesson.
"Amelie, Think of all the things you want for your life. DREAM BIG," read one. "Follow your heart," read another.
Clarke started an Instagram account, where she posted photos of each day's message. She amassed a following of friends and strangers. In the spring, a local television station did a story about the Tampa, Florida, mother and her loving lunch notes to her child.
Three weeks later, on May 1, the bottom dropped out of their world and the notes took on an entirely different meaning.
John Clarke was outside the family home, finishing up some yard work. He came inside complaining of being stung by bees. "He started feeling really bad," Clarke said of her husband. He became anxious and hyperactive.
"He said 'Something's not right,'"' his wife recounted. She tried to get him to calm down. It's just a bee sting, she told him. We'll go to the emergency room. But in a matter of minutes, his body started swelling and he lay down on the bed.
"I just can't do it," he told her. So she called 911. "I couldn't tell if he was breathing anymore," she said. "I didn't do know I was doing the right thing. I was trying to get some breath into him."
Amelie, meanwhile, was beside herself. "She knew something was wrong and she was screaming," Clarke said.
The paramedics arrived and whisked her husband away. Clarke and Amelie followed in the family car.
At the hospital, they waited for word. "They came in and said he had died."
No one knew John Clarke, 53, was allergic to bee stings.
As the heartbreaking news traveled, cards began arriving from children and adults. Some were silly, and some were deep. All were steeped in care and compassion.
"Don't lose hope when times are tough and the cards are stacked against you. Never give in, never give up, even when hope may be hard to find," wrote one child.
"What do elves learn in school?" asked another. "The elf-abet!"
Clarke said she has counted how cards they've received. "I'm a little overwhelmed," she said. "I'm not ready to go through all of them yet. It's pretty raw still."
She has shown some of them to Amelie, but "I don't want to drag her into sadness," her mother said.
Amelie often speaks of her dad. "In an easy way," Clarke said. "She doesn't talk about the event."
Clarke notices changes in her daughter's behavior since losing her father.
"When she's angry, she gets really angry. When she's sad, she's really sad," Clarke said. Her emotions are bigger than the events that trigger them.
Someday soon, Clarke says she will take Amelie to speak with a professional about her dad's death and about an emotion called grief.
"She doesn't get it. She's six," her mother said.