Jesse Lewis left a message for his family that remains a driving force in his mother’s life as she moves to bring compassion into public school curriculum. The 6-year-old’s prophetic message? Nurturing Healing Love.
Jesse’s mother, Scarlett, could not have known that her son’s words would carry such weight in the darkest hour of her life. Jesse was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012.
Yet somehow, Scarlett Lewis, a former Darien resident, has been able to take the most tragic event and find a way to breath life into it.
It happened the night she learned her son was not coming home.
“We went back to my mom’s house when the outpouring of love began,” Lewis remembered. “I never knew there was so much love in the world.”
“I really have friends — I never knew their capacity for friendship and love,” she said. “But I saw it, and it continues. I was overwhelmed.”
“From that, I thought, ‘How can we bottle this beautiful, amazing feeling?”
Over the next few weeks, she received over 500,000 letters from all over the world, from people “expressing their love in handwritten multiple pages.”
“Parents who have lost a child, saying, ‘I have spent my entire life asking myself why? Why my child? Why me? Why Now? Well perhaps I know why now. It’s because I can write this letter’.”
Something was moving in the atmosphere around Scarlett Lewis. Something tangible but fleeting. Something powerful yet delicate. It was people coming together. United by a collective grief and a burning desire to say, enough is enough. No more violence. It’s time to take a different road.
The Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation was born.
“Our mission is to create awareness in our children and our communities that we can choose love over anger, gratitude over entitlement, and forgiveness and compassion over bitterness,” the foundation’s website states. “Our goal is to create a more peaceful and loving world through planting these seeds of wisdom.
“We are currently developing a compassion- and wisdom-based curriculum to introduce into our schools and communities — inspirational and educational programs that will incorporate this empowering message and also highlight unforgettable stories of young people (including genocide survivors) who have overcome extreme hardship through choosing love over anger.”
Lewis has met with President Barack Obama, who agreed that compassion should be brought into public school curriculum, Lewis said. Obama’s sister, Maya, is on the foundation’s advisory board.
She’s also recently met with the Dalai Lama.
“It was quick but very powerful,” Lewis said of her meeting with the Tibetan leader. “I am going to travel to India in the fall to discuss his work in adding values and compassion into school-based curriculum using scientifically-backed research and metrics.”
Lewis said she is careful not to use religion in her efforts to promote compassion in school curriculum, and that she wants to focus on research to support her mission.
Chris Kukk, a professor at Western Connecticut State University, connected with Lewis early this year. WestConn’s senate voted in October to name the school a “university of compassion,” one of few schools in the country to do so.
When Kukk joined forces with Lewis, two singular visions fused.
“What Scarlett was trying to do was exactly what I was trying to do,” Kukk told The Darien Times. “It just happened. It all just came together really well. She came into my office, and right then and there we knew, after an hour conversation, we both said that this is lifelong. I’m in, really, for the long haul.
“We’re not going to rest until the kindergartners who start with the [compassion] curriculum graduate from college,” he added. “That’s when we’re done.”
A former counter-intelligence agent for the CIA, Kukk said he knows the dangers of an existence devoid of compassion.
“I’ve seen the world on the other side, and it’s not pretty and it’s full of paranoia,” he said. “And we see what happens when paranoia takes over. We have the Adam Lanzas of the world.”
“For me, I became a teacher because of the true power of education and how it can change people dramatically. Meeting the Dalai Lama has just totally turned me to going even stronger toward weaving compassion onto the common core.”
New York Times best-selling author Nick Ortner also found a place in the snowball of positive energy started by young Jesse in his Newtown home.
“Scarlett’s the leading light in this,” Ortner said. “I’m just happy to be a part of it. She’s unbelievable. What Jesse left before he died was incredible.
“It doesn’t really stand to reason or logic, but it tells us there’s something else going on there that we don’t really understand.”
Ortner, a Newtown resident, invited Lori Leyden, an author and psychotherapist who has helped genocide survivors in Rwanda, to help Lewis heal and nurture the foundation’s growth.
“One of the reasons I’m here, is because I’ve seen the transformation in young people who are 20 years old, [who were] 6 to 8 years old at the time of the [Rwandan] genocide, completely transform their lives with a little love and the right resources, then I know healing can happen anywhere in the world,” Leyden said at a recent fundraiser for the foundation.
Leyden moved from California to Newtown to live once she committed herself to contribute to healing the community.
“Nick took me down in to Sandy Hook the first night I was here,” Leyden said, “and I saw these signs: ‘We are Sandy Hook. We choose love.’ I said, ‘Nick, we are in the right place at the right time, and we can do this’.”
“Then we met Scarlett through an amazing synchronicity and I think we all fell in love and amazing things have happened,” she continued.
Lewis’s 12-year-old son, JT, has also been inspired to help. Ortner and Leyden brought light into JT and his mother’s lives through a novel technique called ‘tapping,’ which combines modern psychotherapy with ancient Chinese acupressure. JT was skeptical at first, Lewis said, but once he joined a video chat session with genocide survivors in Rwanda — who convinced him to try tapping as it had helped them — JT began to heal and was inspired to do something positive.
He has since raised enough money to send a Rwandan woman to college for one year, and is now trying to raise enough money to take care of her nine brothers and sisters.
“I’m just so grateful to be part of this collaboration, and young people like JT are going to make it happen,” Lewis said. “If Newtown can heal, Rwanda can heal, anyone can heal.”
In the end, what’s important for people to remember is that we are all human beings, Lewis said. That is the core of compassion.
“It all started with an angry thought in Adam’s head,” Lewis said. “Those thoughts can be changed. We just have to replace that angry thought with a loving thought. It takes effort, but we can do it.”
While visiting with the Dalai Lama in Maryland, Lewis said the leader spoke of how compassion means being able to identify with the suffering of others and being compelled to help.
“This is the phenomenon that happened on 12-14 — on that day human beings of the world united and there were no boundaries,” Lewis said. “We were all just mothers and fathers, siblings and grandparents, but the outpouring was regardless of race or religion or financial status.
“Everyone felt connected through compassion and there was an out-flowing of love,” she continued. “The key is how to keep this coming and it’s a choice we make every day, but we need to be aware of this choice and then [have] mindfulness [when] we face a decision [to] make the right choice.”
The choice is simple, according to Lewis. Choose love. Every time, all the time. It’s that simple.
Jesse Lewis carried that message, and was the last thing he left for his mother. On the morning of Dec. 14, he scrawled “I love you” on the frost of his mom’s car, along with a heart on the window. Scarlett Lewis ran inside to grab a camera to capture the moment. Jesse stuck out his tongue, as if to say, ‘Choosing love can be fun,’ as his mom snapped the shot.
Originally published in The Darien Times.