FREEDOM — When Aaron Vanden Heuvel read the novel “A Long Walk to Water” by Linda Sue Park along with his classmates in their sixth-grade literature class at St. Francis Xavier Middle School in Appleton, he was bothered by what he read. The 2010 book is based on the true story of Salva, one of some 3,800 Sudanese “Lost Boys” airlifted to the United States beginning in the mid-1990s.
“Kids, mostly girls, have to walk the whole day to get water. It’s a half day there and a half day back. They don’t get to go to school,” said Vanden Heuvel. “There was a charity associated with the book called Water for South Sudan (waterforsouthsudan.org) and I wanted to donate to it.”
The idea was noble but, like most pre-teens, Vanden Heuvel had no steady source of income so he didn’t have enough money to make the kind of impact that he’d hoped. He brainstormed ideas with his family and, by fate, the ideal solution came to them within a week.
In January of 2020, Vanden Heuvel’s grandmother, Jackie Hepfler, passed away.
“Caramel rolls were her signature thing,” Vanden Heuvel said. “Everyone in the family liked them. She had taught my sister, Eve (now a freshman at Benedictine College in Kansas), how to make them. They wrote down the recipe because she didn’t use measurements, so they had to figure it out.”
Vanden Heuvel wanted to honor his grandmother in a special way at her funeral. “My original idea was to draw a picture of a caramel roll because I didn’t know how to bake,” he said. In the end, he decided to try his hand at making the caramel rolls so he could place one in her casket to send with her to heaven. The day before the funeral, he made his first batch in his grandmother’s kitchen.
“My mom posted some pictures of me on Facebook making them. One of our cousins said they’d like to buy a batch,” he said.
That request inspired Vanden Heuvel to start his own business making and selling caramel rolls. Because the rolls are baked in their home kitchen, they can only be sold directly to end consumers and not retailers.
As for the name of the endeavor, Vanden Heuvel used his own nickname, “YumYum,” that had been given to him by one of the foreign exchange students whom his family had hosted through the years. His mother, Michele Hepfler, created a Facebook page, Yum Yum Rolls, and an Instagram account (both @yumyumrolls4charity) and let people know that they were taking orders.
Things took off from there. “We sold 10 orders the first weekend,” said Vanden Heuvel. Yum Yum Rolls sell for $20 per dozen or $10 for a half-dozen. Fifty percent of the revenue goes directly to Water for South Sudan. Vanden Heuvel’s goal is to raise $15,000, which is the cost to dig one well in South Sudan. So far, $4,148 has been raised.
Yum Yum Rolls are baked almost every weekend throughout the year. Customers are asked to place orders via email by 8 p.m. Friday. “We have to set up the dough Saturday morning so it can rise. We put them together Saturday night. My mom bakes them Sunday morning,” he said.
Vanden Heuvel takes care of the majority of the process himself. If he gets a lot of orders in one batch, his dad, Don Vanden Heuvel, will help make the caramel and his mom will help roll the dough. His sister and older brother, Johnl, a sophomore at Xavier High School in Appleton, pitch in on occasion by making up the boxes for the rolls. His dad also takes care of most of the bookwork for the LLC.
The fresh-from-the-oven caramel rolls are available for pickup Sunday mornings between 7:45 and 8:15 a.m. at Michele’s business, Escape Salon Studios, 2400 S. Kensington Drive, Appleton. So far, his biggest weekend of business was 39 orders. The average is five to 10, depending on the time of year. As a thank-you to the St. Francis Xavier School System, through which Vanden Heuvel was introduced to “A Long Walk for Water,” they delivered individual Yum Yum Rolls to the entire staff one week.
In addition, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the Vanden Heuvel family delivered Yum Yum Rolls as a thank-you to the Neenah, Appleton, De Pere and Green Bay fire departments and the Green Bay and Appleton police departments.. His godfather had been a fire chief.
Yum Yum rolls have also been purchased to be delivered to places such as Pillars in Appleton, which provides homeless persons shelter as well as other solutions to address housing needs in the community..
Not only does Vanden Heuvel spend considerable time baking rolls each week but he’s also actively involved in sports, including basketball, cross country, track, karate (he’s a 2nd degree black belt) and wrestling. In addition, he’s in Boy Scouts.
After the profits are divided up — with half going to the charity and another portion used to pay his parents for the baking ingredients — most of the remaining funds go into his college fund. His goal is to continue being an entrepreneur.
Vanden Heuvel said he’s glad he took on this project. “It’s just nice to help people. It feels good. It makes you feel like you’re actually doing something for others. You’re not just sitting there when other people are in trouble or need help,” he said.
Name: Aaron Vanden Heuvel
Parish: St. Nicholas, Freedom, and St. Thomas More, Appleton
Favorite Saint: Christopher