“Jack and Jill went up the hill to …” Nicole Solomon, 6, pauses to consider the next word. Sitting in the faculty break room at A.J. Lindeman Elementary in Erlanger, legs  swinging well above the floor, the first-grader peers at her book through bright orange-framed glasses.

“Fetch! A pail of water,” she continues triumphantly. When she finishes the nursery rhyme, she offers — okay, demands — high fives from her school principal, a photographer, a reporter and the manager of community relations for Toyota’s U.S. headquarters of manufacturing in Erlanger.

Three of us are there because of a NKY Magazine story. But the fourth adult, Toyota’s Helen Carroll, is at her regular weekly 45-minute reading session with Nicole. Typical of the 24-year Toyota veteran, Carroll didn’t just establish the program for Toyota employees to tutor at-risk children at the nearby school. For the third year running, she participated.

“I don’t even need to help you,” Carroll gushes. “You know these words.”

“They’re easy!” Nicole replies. “I want to do them all over again. It’s so fun!” And she does.

WALKING THE TALK
Carroll, 56, has become a fixture in Northern Kentucky’s volunteer community since moving from Toyota’s Georgetown plant in 2000, where she’d led community relations since its opening in 1987. Toyota Motor Engineering and Manufacturing North America opened in Erlanger in 1996.

She is chairwoman of the Governor’s School for the Arts advisory council and of the United Way of Kentucky board. She is a board member of the Children’s Home of Northern Kentucky and of the Gateway Community and Technical College Foundation.

“My son is a Gateway graduate. On a personal level, I believe very strongly in its mission serving kids who won’t necessarily be going to a four-year school. It was very important for my son, and I believe very strongly in it,” Carroll said.

Her numerous awards include the Gary R. Bricking Community Leadership award from United Way of Northern Kentucky in 2009 and the 2010 Joseph W. Kelly statewide award given to a business leader who has shown outstanding support for education.

Though it’s her job to reach out to the community on behalf of Toyota, she goes far beyond the call of duty by many accounts.

“She’s so active. I mean, she is the champion for education in Northern Kentucky, quite honestly,” says Polly Lusk Page, executive director of the Northern Kentucky Education Council.

She led the education team for Vision 2015 (a community-wide effort in Northern Kentucky to set goals for improving its economy, education and other quality of life benchmarks). “She led the charge to herd all of the folks who had an interest in education,” Page says. “That became an education implementation team. We developed strategies about specific programs that we thought would move the needle, like the one-to-one practice reading. Helen, in her usual way, became a coach. She doesn’t just talk about it, but acts, too.”

SMALL-TOWN GIRL
Carroll grew up in Georgetown and graduated from the University of Kentucky with a degree in communications. Two years out of college, she moved to Northern Kentucky, where she held several jobs, including communications for St. Luke Hospital, She moved back to her hometown six months before Toyota was scheduled to open its plant there. Her job was to integrate the cultures of central Kentucky with the Japanese auto manufacturer. It was a tall order.

“If I could have written a job description for myself, I couldn’t have done a better job,” she says. “I was from Georgetown, I knew the community, that’s what they were looking for, somebody who could help acclimate the company into the community and be the face of the company, which is what I do here.”

And how, says Mike Shires, Lindeman principal. “She’s done a tremendous amount for our school and our kids. She really, really cares. Toyota is our Business Education Support Team (BEST) partner, and it’s paired with our school mainly because of Helen.”

In the three years Toyota has worked with the school, dozens of volunteers have been paired with students.

Page says Carroll works closely with the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, where she is a former board president, to help the region’s businesses understand the importance of a vibrant education system to the business community. “It’s about her ability to connect public education to economic growth and development, and about having that skilled work force that companies need,” Page says.

“She’s passionate, dedicated and I would have to say she’s very innovative in her thinking. You want someone like Helen to champion something because she can really speak from her heart, and she has more energy than anyone else I know.”

FAVORITE MOMENTS
Carroll says she loves her job. It shows as she talks about her favorite moments. “We have a suite at Paul Brown Stadium for Bengals games. We hosted an 11-year-old named Bobby, who is struggling with leukemia. It was like watching a ‘make a wish’ thing come true,” she says, explaining that Chad Ochocinco was in his suite next door, along with Terrell Owens, both nursing injuries. Bobby was invited to watch part of the game with the two star receivers. “How great is this opportunity to see this happen? To see this kid who is just overwhelmed. Those are the kind of things that my job allows me to do,” she says.

“My job allows me to meet so many great people, to be at the table with (Northern Kentucky University President) Jim Votruba and (Gateway Community and Technical College President) Ed Hughes and to learn from them and grow. I’ve been to Japan several times. A small-town girl from Georgetown? I never dreamed I’d have the opportunity.”

Carroll isn’t ready to retire but she is contemplating life after full-time work. She may teach communications at the college level and devote time to writing, a passion she hasn’t been able to indulge much.

In fact, she’s getting a jump on the writing, having just taken a week’s vacation to begin work on a book based on letters sent between her parents and her mom’s journals while her dad was serving in World War II from 1943 until the war’s end in 1945.

“I’m going to write a story built around these letters. It’s going to take me a while. It will probably be fiction based on a true story. I have to do a lot of research on what was happening,” she says.

For now, she’ll keep on reaching out in new and old ways to keep education efforts moving on the right track in the community she’s embraced. “There is no typical day. That’s the great thing about my job.”