Del Mar Heights students take a ride on the Polar Express

By Max Sutton-Smolin


R. Paul Allen has been volunteering every Friday at Del Mar Heights Elementary School for eight years, making reading come alive for an hour a day for first- and


In a special read-aloud on Dec. 18, Allen gesticulated and silly-voiced his way through “The Polar Express,” a heartwarming story about children taking a train called the Polar Express to the North Pole as long as they can “truly believe.” His daughter Liana-Melissa Allen, 14, accompanied him on the piano and created sound effects and background music for the story to help make it come alive.

“The whole reason we do this is to get kids to read,” Allen said. “There’s so much competition from all the screens, whether it be computer games, television, texting, twittering, against reading ... so my whole mantra is ‘Turn off the TV and read. Read every day. Make it an everyday activity.’ And you get in the habit of it, and it’s amazing how much it does for you.”

The program started with a sing-along of winter- and Christmas-themed music, which Liana led on the piano and with her voice. The audience of about 100 students was reluctant to join in until she got to some songs they really knew, such as “Holly Jolly Christmas” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”

“I think they want to sing along because I’m singing and I’m having fun,” Liana said.

“The Polar Express,” written by Chris Van Allsburg, has a take-home message of believing in one’s traditions but also in oneself, Allen emphasized to his audience before beginning the tale.

“This book is about believing in yourself, something called self-confidence,” Allen said to the students. “Self-confidence can help you in things you want to be good at, whether it be sports, jumping rope, dancing, playing the piano, singing or whatever you do.”

This idea that self-confidence can lead to improvement “is true for sports, and is especially true for reading,” Allen said.

Allen and his read-alouds have become nicely integrated into the school, Principal Wendy Wardlow said.

“And the first time he discovered he had such a flair for it was just volunteering in the classroom, which is kind of neat,” Wardlow said. “We really appreciate it.”

Liana, who is now in eighth grade at Earl Warren Middle School, has been doing this with her father for six years and has played piano since first grade, she said.

Liana also went to Del Mar Heights, and eight years ago, she requested that Allen read a book she liked to her first-grade class. After that, Allen said, he started volunteering to read books aloud on a weekly basis to both first- and second-grade classes.

“I like the way Mr. Allen tells the stories because he makes the stories come alive,” one first-grade student said.

“I thought the story was fantastic,” another student said. “Mr. Allen included a lot of action when he read the story. And I like how Mr. Allen’s daughter plays the piano.”

“I’ve done a lot of things in my life,” Allen said, “but this is probably the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”

Allen hopes to expand his Polar Express read-aloud presentation, he said, to venues such as the Rady Children’s Hospital or the San Diego Center for Children. All Allen and his daughter need are a piano and an electrical outlet, he said.