Rachel Oehlert needed a jolt. For most of her life, she has struggled with dyslexia, often becoming confused when looking at words on a page or seeing letters as backward or upside down.
When her nervousness about reading aloud in grade school continued into adulthood, Oehlert, 24, of Thornton, Colo., thought she needed to take a radical step to confront her fear.
In 2016, she came up with an idea. She bought a princess costume with some money she had been given for her birthday, then arranged to visit a children’s hospital bedecked as Belle from “Beauty and the Beast.” After strolling into her first hospital room, she opened a book and started to read to the children.
Her voice was strong and confident, and the children were enthralled. She did not know who loved it more, her or them.
Three years later, not only is Oehlert more self-assured about reading, but she also has gotten 15 others to volunteer with her as princesses and superheroes and read to sick children. Several times a month, they visit places such as Children’s Hospital Colorado and Brent’s Place, a long-term home away from home for families of children receiving treatment for life-threatening illnesses, in Aurora, Colo.
She turned the program into a charity and gave it the name Truly Make Believe.
Volunteers take along storybooks to read based on their characters, but the most important thing, Oehlert said, is to simply scatter a little magic.
"So many of us need to have that moment of leaving reality for a few minutes,” she said. “Doing this has made me a more compassionate human. What started as a simple idea to help me overcome a fear has become a big part of who I am.”
While there are plenty of companies that hire out princesses and superheroes for birthday parties and special events — some charging between $150 and $400 an hour — Truly Make Believe visits are done at no cost, said Oehlert, who works as a dog groomer when she is not dressing up as Belle or Ariel from the “Little Mermaid.”
She and the other volunteers use their own money to buy costumes, wigs and makeup to bring their characters to life.
“Walking into a room knowing that you’re going to make someone happy is the most rewarding feeling I’ve ever experienced,” said Oehlert, whose volunteers portray more than 20 characters, including Snow White, Spider-Man, Rapunzel and Darth Vader.
Families at Brent’s Place always look forward to visits from Oehlert and her friends, said Cassie Davis, the program coordinator.
“The joy brought to the kids and their caregivers is a powerful medicine that we would never be able to provide without Truly Make Believe,” Davis said.
Oehlert was diagnosed with dyslexia and dysgraphia in 2005 when she was 10 after years of struggling in school.
“It was difficult,” she said, “but now I see it as a learning difference, not a disability. People with different brains learn in different ways. I see the world differently — and I think the world needs that.”
In December 2016, after buying a Belle costume and visiting the hospital, Oehlert made her first visit to Brent’s Place to read children a Christmas story and “answer questions about living with a Beast.”
"They actually thought that I was Belle, and that was exactly what I’d hoped to achieve,” she said. “After that, I was hooked. I knew that I had to keep going.”
Over the next year, she enlisted help from volunteers, including 16-year-old Olivia Katsirubas of Broomfield, Colo., who portrays Tinker Bell, Alice in Wonderland and other characters.
"I love seeing faces light up and enjoy seeing hope and laughter in kids who are facing extreme difficulties at such a young age,” Katsirubas said.
For Thomas Marshall, a mechanical engineering major at Colorado State University who regularly suits up as a Jedi, volunteering with Truly Make Believe is a way to help children believe in the impossible.
"We aim to help kids be strong-hearted like a princess, to hope like a Jedi and to be brave like a superhero, which is what they truly are,” Marshall said.
Oehlert, who often visits children in care facilities on their birthdays, said the ultimate compliment is when nobody wants her to go home.