Pegasus Project delivers stuffies to students learning to read

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The Pegasus Project delivers stuffed animals to elementary school students learning to read.

AURORA, Colo. — Eli Mahnken was a happy kid.

“Eli loved life. Oftentimes he’d sing that to you,” his mom Heather Mahnken said.

He loved to run. He loved to ski. But most of all he loved to read, and found an escape from his reality in the pages of books.

His reality was cancer. Eli was diagnosed with a brain tumor right before his second birthday.

Reading became a passion of his at a young age, to help pass the time between treatments. It’s something his first-grade teacher, Jana Johnson, helped foster — by way of stuffed animals.

“It’s amazing how a little stuffie will motivate a child to read,” Johnson said. 

And kids seem to love the idea.

“Having a stuffie next to me, it just helps me focus and when I get angry that I can’t say a word my stuffie helps calm me down,” said Lukas, Eli’s friend and classmate. 

Eli made friends with just about everyone, but his cancer prognosis continued to get worse.

“We talked a lot about living and about dying, and we lived in that space together with him so that he didn’t have to be afraid to die. And randomly as we were going up camping he told us, ‘when I die I want to make sure that every student at my school got a stuffed animal to read to because I think that’s important,’” Heather said. 

That’s what his family, school and community set out to do after Eli passed away in October 2022.

“The community really came together and Colorado really opened up their hearts,” Eli’s dad David Mahnken said.

Bags and bags of stuffed animals arrived. Boxes filled the garage, then a storage unit, then two storage units.

They named it the “Pegasus Project” after Eli’s favorite stuffie.

Friends from school came over and put the logo and his story on every single stuffed animal. There were enough for not only Eli’s school, like his original wish, but for seven others — more than 3,600 kids.

Eli’s older sister helped deliver them to each classroom, including Jana Johnson’s.

“What a special gift for these kids to use it as a way to remember Eli, but also as a way to instill that love of reading and motivate them,” she said.

“The amount of love that I have felt, that my family has felt, over the last few months is ginormous,” Heather said.

Eli’s parents will continue the Pegasus Project for three more years – all the years he would have been in elementary school.

If you would like to help by donating new stuffed animals, please drop them off or mail them to 16270 East Stanford Place, Aurora, CO 80015.

RELATED: ‘Pegasus Project’ in need of stuffed animal donations

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Pegasus Project delivers stuffies to students learning to read

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