“JT and I are not going to be victims for the rest of our lives. We can’t always choose what happens to us, but we can always choose how we respond — and we can always respond with love.”
In December 2012, a shooter stormed Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT, and killed 6 staff members and 20 children—including Scarlett Lewis’s 6-year-old son, Jesse.
In the face of this unimaginable tragedy, Scarlett took comfort in Jesse’s heroism and chose not to blame but to love — and help make this world a better place for generations to come.
Jesse saved nine of his classmates that day.
When the shooter briefly ran out of bullets, Jesse yelled to his friends to run — but he stayed behind. Scarlett believes that he wanted to stay to protect his beloved teacher.
“That isn’t the image of courage we’re bombarded with in movies and video games,” says Scarlett. “That is the ultimate form of courage: laying down your life for your friends.
“Courage is being kind and gentle, doing the right thing when no one is looking, and thoughtfully responding to a reactive situation.”
When Scarlett and her older son, JT, returned home after the tragedy, they found a message from Jesse written on the kitchen chalkboard:
“Those words are not in the vernacular of a six-year-old,” says Scarlett. “I started doing research, and I learned that those three words are in the definition of compassion across all cultures. I knew then that I needed to spend the rest of my life spreading this message in schools. I believe that if the shooter had been able to give and receive nurturing, healing love, the tragedy never would have happened.”
Scarlett reached out to a professor named Dr. Chris Kukk at Western Connecticut State University to make sense of her son’s message and use it to empower others. Dr. Kukk told her about social and emotional learning (SEL), a process that equips people of all ages with the knowledge to identify and manage their emotions, have healthy relationships, and feel empathy and compassion for others.
SEL has overwhelming research behind it to show that young children who learn the process grow up to have fewer mental health issues, lower incarceration and divorce rates, commit less violence, bullying, and substance abuse, and have higher grades, test scores, and graduation rates.
“If this were a vaccine, we’d vaccinate everyone,” says Scarlett.
Scarlett knew this would be her new life mission: to make sure every child has access to SEL.
She started The Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement and, together with Dr. Kukk and a team of educators, developed an SEL program that teaches children of all ages how to choose love.
The Choose Love formula:
- Courage — taught through the story of Jesse’s heroism
- Gratitude — benefits include: happiness, better sleep, and a longer life
- Forgiveness — the key to resilience, healthy relationships, and letting go of anger
- Compassion — identifying with someone’s pain and doing something to help
The Choose Love Program is free, available online, and requires no teacher training. Scarlett and her team hope that schools everywhere will use their curriculum. Last year, they were in 5 pilot schools as well as in over 500 classrooms in 44 states and 13 countries.
Scarlett and a team of educators based the curriculum not just on SEL but also on the science of post-traumatic growth. As a result, many schools that have experienced tragedies have implemented the program to encourage conversation and healing. The program has already saved at least one young person’s life — a story told in a video about the pilot program’s impact.
Scarlett with pilot school students wearing their green Choose Love bracelets.
In order to save money for curriculum development and research, everyone at the foundation — including Scarlett — started out working as a volunteer. In the beginning, they got by on charity events organized by friends and a grant from the NoVo Foundation, but ultimately Scarlett needed a way to get the online community involved in fundraising.
That’s where GoFundMe came in.
In September 2016, Scarlett set up a GoFundMe
for the foundation. She shared Jesse’s story, the foundation’s mission, and photos of the students in the pilot program. The GoFundMe community embraced her and Jesse’s story and spread the word. In just 3 months, she raised over $20,000.
The funds helped The Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement not only finalize its high school curriculum, but also set its sights on another group of learners: parents.
Scarlett with her son, JT, who is now 17. Jesse would have turned 10 this Friday, June 30.
“With the help of the campaign, we just launched a new program called Choosing Love at Home to serve as a guide for parents,” says Scarlett. “There should be a consistent message in both the school and the home.
“Whether you’re an educator or a parent, if a child comes up to you and behaves angrily, will you put them in time-out or help them label and manage their emotions to get to the root of the problem?
Anger is a secondary emotion; it’s the tip of the iceberg. There’s a reason for it. You could be feeling lonely, disappointed, frustrated, humiliated, guilty—all of these could be a precursor to anger. But if you don’t understand that, there’s no way you can deal with your anger.”
Just a few weeks ago, Scarlett led a Choosing Love at Home workshop at a local school’s parent night. At the end, she asked parents to fill out comment cards. One read, “Thank you for being an answer to my prayers.”
Now, Scarlett has raised her fundraising goal
to help the foundation bring their message into more classrooms across the nation and worldwide.
In 2015, the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission issued a final report on the tragedy with three recommendations to prevent similar acts: gun safety, better access to mental health services, and SEL.
“My life’s mission is that every child has access to social and emotional learning,” says Scarlett. “This is not a privilege; this is what children deserve and need for a happy, well-adjusted life.
“We have everything in place. Now we just need help to reach as many children as possible.”