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Scarlett Lewis

Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement — Newtown, Connecticut

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Photo by Stephen Voss

We offer a unique program based on love for schoolchildren, their parents and communities so everyone can develop their emotional and social selves. I learned the importance of these often-ignored skills after my 6-year-old son, Jesse, was killed by a troubled young man at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Our free evidence-based programs have reached more than 3 million children in some 11,000 schools across the world.​​

The problem I'm trying to solve​

​Children and teens are suffering such pervasive mental health crises that the U.S. Surgeon General and pediatric groups have called it a national emergency. Gun violence, substance abuse, suicide and other so-called diseases of despair are surging. These actions are often sparked by uncomfortable emotions like anxiety, anger, loneliness and fear that sufferers don’t know how to process.​​

I’m convinced that if 20-year-old Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook shooter, had been taught the skills we’re teaching, he would have been able to grow from his traumas and my son, two dozen other children and teachers, and Lanza himself would likely be alive today.​​

The moment that sparked my passion

​​I came home after Jesse was killed and spotted the words he had written on our kitchen chalkboard a few days earlier: “Nurturing Healing Love” (although with the adorable spelling errors of a first-grader). I immediately knew this was the solution. At Jesse’s funeral, I shared how the tragedy began with the pain that Adam suffered and did not know how to manage in his head, but that all his negative thoughts stemming from a difficult life could have been shifted. I asked people in the congregation to ponder and change their own troublesome thinking.​​

Soon, I started hearing from these people that they hadn’t realized how angry or fearful they were, and that addressing this was changing their lives. I knew we were onto something. I consulted with psychologists, trauma therapists and others to develop the Jesse Lewis Choose Love for School program. Many dear friends raised the initial money so we could launch it.​​

What I wish other people knew​

​Numerous steps are required to keep our kids safe, but too much of the attention is focused on the last step, preventing a planned attack, such as by hardening schools. Yet the first step is a proactive and preventative approach that focuses on the grievance, and nobody had a systematic education program to tackle that before we did.

Feeling pain is part of the human condition. But it has purpose: To help us grow. When we become curious about what its lessons are, we stop fearing difficult situations as much.

What’s more, everything happening in our world and our community is all of our responsibilities. We tend to wait for leaders or politicians to do something, but we have to make the change — and change starts within us.​​

Why my approach is unique

​​We’ve created the only school-based program that focuses on love and the steps involved in embracing it as a thoughtful response. Our formula is derived from Jesse’s chalkboard message: That choosing love equals courage, gratitude, forgiveness and acting in compassionate ways.​​

The skills we teach — understanding and modulating emotions, developing confidence, creating healthy relationships, making responsible decisions and more — are crucial for children, but they’re also beneficial for everyone. That’s why in addition to programs for school ages from kindergarten through high school, we have downloadable versions for toddlers/preschoolers, pregnant moms (because their emotions influence fetal brain development), parents and everyone in the community.

​​I know our program is valuable across the lifespan because, since Jesse’s death, I personally have benefited from learning and practicing its concepts. ​

Advice to others who want to make a difference

​​I encourage everyone who feels strongly drawn to a mission to pursue it. That might mean starting a nonprofit, but it could also be sharing your own story. I believe we are here as human beings to impart the wisdom we’ve gained through both good and bad experiences. Sure, it takes courage to step outside your pain and suffering — we teach this courage in our program — but when you do, your wisdom begins to heal the world.

​​I also emphasize another message Jesse left in our home, on his brother’s desk. It said, “Have a lot of fun.” That is truly important, too.​

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