A powerful personal story that touches people’s hearts and impacts their lives. I have been stunned by the effect Jessie’s story has on people. From the news coverage the day it happened until today, eight years later, we’ve had thousands of people reach out to us to express gratitude and support for what we are trying to do.
For someone who wants to set aside money to establish a Philanthropic Foundation or Fund, what does it take to make sure your resources are being impactful and truly effective? In this interview series, called “How To Create Philanthropy That Leaves a Lasting Legacy” we are visiting with founders of Philanthropic Foundations, Charitable Organizations, and Non Profit Organizations, to talk about the steps they took to create sustainable success.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Buck Blodgett.
Dr. Buck Blodgett is the author of A Message from Jessie and is the Founder of The LOVE>hate Project (www.ligth.org). He also has been in family chiropractic practice since 1996 and is founder of The Chiropractic & Wellness Group, and Wellness Drs. He and his wife, Joy, were the parents of Jessie, who was murdered when she was 19. Since her death, Blodgett has worked to end violence and to educate, motivate, and inspire young minds to choose love over hate. He speaks nationally in schools, conferences, and prisons.
Thank you for making time to visit with us about a “top of mind” topic. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today?
Well, the obvious one is the origin event of our project, the rape and murder of my daughter, our only child, Jessie. This was a loss so big and unexpected that it rocked me out of who I had always been, shifted my thinking and my heart, and changed the course of my future. I had a profound and personal experience of forgiveness. Every person and every second suddenly became sacred and precious, and 95% of what used to matter to me didn’t anymore. You know — having the best yard in the neighborhood, making the most money. Jessie’s taking was so dark and wrong.
Ironically, violence against women was her cause in life. Jess and I were so close, she was my shining light. I had to do something about this issue; I had to give Jess and millions of victims everywhere whatever voice I could, and use their losses to bring change, to do whatever I could to transform violence and hate into love and forgiveness.
But I never would have responded to Jessie’s murder with purpose, power, and love had I not taken a course on personal growth while living in Alaska in 1984. Actually, I had registered for the course three times, but had cancelled twice. I had signed up a third time when I got the job offer of my dreams, so I called to cancel yet again.
The coach who was teaching the course answered. He listened to my story, said congratulations on the new job, and then asked me if I “do this”.
“Do what?” I asked, a little irritated.
“You know, sign up for things and not follow through, make a commitment and not honor it, give your word to something and break it?”
That was the beginning of one of the most life changing conversations I have ever had. No one had ever talked with me like that. Not my dad, not a coach, not a teacher, not a pastor.
Never had someone kicked my butt so hard and left me feeling inspired and loved. At the end of that phone call, I said “You gave me much to think about, but I can’t pass on this job, I’m out.” He said, “I get it, I’ll cancel your registration again. But as we hang up, consider this Buck. What would your life be like if you lived it in such a way that you would give up the job of a lifetime to keep your word? What doors might open for you that are closed now? Who might you attract into your life that you haven’t yet? What might become possible if you lived this way?”
I said, “Those are great questions, and I will think about them while I’m fishing, but I’m out.”
We hung up. I sat cross-legged on my living floor in our hippie house on Phinney Ridge in Seattle in 1984, corded dial-up phone between my knees, and I thought about those questions for a couple minutes. Then I picked up that phone, called him back, and said, “OK, I’m in.”
That call was the beginning of discovering the power of my word, and many other life skills. The course trained me, taught me to respond to life’s challenges in a free and empowered way, and readied me to answer Jessie’s death decades later with a new mission, her legacy project.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? We would love to hear a few stories or examples.
Resilience. I’ve had broken bones, broken relationships, broken dreams, and a broken heart. All of us have had most of those things. But none of those things hurt one one-hundredth as much as losing Jessie. What happened to her was so dark. The future without her in it felt so black. Eight years later the pain is still there. It will never go away. It would be easy to walk right off the edge into the abyss without tools.
One tool is resilience, the conscious choice to be someone who bounces back, even when I don’t feel like it. The choice to turn bad into good, to make an impact in someone’s life, to be a contribution to the world. Purpose gives me resilience. And together purpose plus resilience eventually transforms pain into peace and joy. It’s too late for Jessie, but it’s not too late for millions of women in every country on earth. I live for Jessie’s mission now, to do something purposeful that makes a difference for them. I live to share with others that there are hidden blessings in every trial. But you must look for them to see them. And when you find them, it changes everything. Divine reversal: using the very thing that was meant to harm you to grow in grace.
Openness. Trauma often causes us to close down, to withdraw, to get cynical and skeptical. I refuse to give Dan (the man who killed Jessie) the power to do that to me. He did what damage he could to Jessie and many who loved her. I will never give him one ounce of power over me and my life. When trauma victims reclaim the power, look out. But you must actively resist closing down and actively choose to open up. I’m blessed with a coach who teaches ‘Open Heart, Open Mind, Open Will, Open Eyes.’ When we reopen after closing down, it’s possible to see and receive hidden blessings.
Discipline: I’m basically weak and selfish. I don’t wake up in the morning wondering what big story greater than myself I can get swept up in to serve humanity. I usually wake up asking myself where’s my coffee and what did my wife do wrong yesterday that I’m still blaming her for. So, when I wake up, I feed the cat, then go straight into my morning routine. My routine is a combination of breathing, meditation, visualization, prayer, reading, a lesson or devotion, scripture, etc. It varies. It evolves. By the end of my morning routine, I’m ready to do what I can to change the world today, to be a voice for those without one, to challenge cultural norms, to believe in the impossible and take actions to advance myself, my community, and the world. And I revisit my morning routine throughout the day. Discipline allows me to get back on the path when I’m constantly straying off it. Everyone can have a routine that keeps them on the path.
Everyone’s routine should be unique for them; what lights my fire isn’t going to light yours. But something will. Find it. Practice it.
I’ve done hundreds of presentations for tens of thousands of people since Jessie’s murder. The very first one was at her high school, for fifteen hundred students, teachers, and their cell phones. I was scared out of my mind. I hate public speaking. As the day approached, I got more and more nervous. A professional speaker told me “They’re going to eat you alive.” So, I went into my morning routine. The day of the assembly, I doubled my routine. I talked to God and listened.
And a funny thing happened. When the bell rang and the gym filled up, a peace descended on me. My story about Jess and her vision touched many kids at their core that day. They still tell me about it. It was resilience, an open will, and discipline that made that day possible.
What’s the most interesting discovery you’ve made since you started leading your organization?
The goodness of people, the incredible bigness of the human heart. When I started Jessie’s legacy project and began to network with other organizations with intersecting missions, I was amazed by how many non-profits there are. I couldn’t keep up with all the new connections; they were everywhere. Most were small unknown non-profits. Some weren’t accomplishing much; others were doing great things. But all of them began when someone made the time and effort to form a 501-c3 and begin work, sometimes investing their own money. Someone cared enough to try to make a difference.
In the wake of Jessie’s death, there was an outpouring of love like I had never seen before. Our house filled every day until her funeral with family, our friends, and Jessie’s friends. They did our lawn and our laundry. They brought flowers and food. We didn’t cook for a month. Five hundred people gathered at the mill pond in our small town a month later, to grieve and heal together. It continues to this day, eight years later.
This outpouring of love changed me forever. And there came a point when I had to ask myself, “Why don’t we do this for each other every day, why does it take tragedy to bring out the best in us?” This outpouring of love set a new bar for me, the possibility of a new norm, and it launched my new life’s work.
Can you please tell our readers more about how you or your organization intends to make a significant impact?
The LOVE>hate Project is a message organization. We are not a service organization. We don’t feed the hungry, house the homeless, or provide services for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. There are other organizations doing that better than we ever could. We are a message organization. We are out to transform culture and change behaviors by winning hearts and minds, especially young ones, through the sharing of powerful, personal, relatable stories. And data.
We share our stories and data through media and presentations, reaching 18,000 people in schools, prisons, professional conferences, churches, and other community groups.
But one and done presentations aren’t enough. So, we do social media, radio and media outreach, and TV too. We have thousands of followers with an average monthly reach lately of about 50,000. We’ve done 40 live radio interviews on major stations in cities like L.A., Chicago, Boston, Tampa, Seattle, Detroit, and Milwaukee, and on outlets like Voice of America and USA Radio. We’ve been featured in Fox News, on Oxygen, and in four TV documentaries, including one broadcast on Dateline NBC. Those four shows have each replayed for years and have been seen by many tens of millions of people on five continents. One of Jessie’s friends made a short documentary that won awards on the national film festival circuit.
But media outreach and messaging alone are also not enough. So, we have a local school program in the works. The mission: measurably decrease interpersonal violence — domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking, bullying, and dating violence — experienced by students. The big vision is a new model that we can share with schools everywhere.
We also have three annual local events, a 5/10K, a Golf Outing, and a Family Fun Fair (first annual FFF in September drew 800 attendees, 70 volunteers, raised 19K dollars for our work, and put 225 kids on a horse). The purpose of all events is to raise awareness of our issue and funds for our work.
Finally, we have a new alliance with the local volunteer center. In February we will pile 20 volunteers on The Do-Good Bus and blitz the four main towns in our county. The goal: place 320 posters in 80 establishments, two in each men’s and ladies’ room. One poster will target victim/survivors. The other will target offender/perpetrators. The purpose of both posters: educate the public, raise awareness for our cause, and call victims and offenders to action to seek resources and help to improve their situations and themselves.
This is how we currently intend to make an impact, locally and globally. But it’s just a beginning. We will always be committed to discovering new and better ways to expand impact, until the mission is no longer necessary.
What makes you feel passionate about this cause more than any other?
Jessie. Call me crazy, but I believe she is working on this with me from the other side. I believe she whispers in my heart whenever I want to quit. Maybe this is what she came here for. Maybe this was her purpose in life; I know it is mine. It’s too late for Jess, but it is not too late for millions of our girls and women everywhere on earth. If the dad of a murdered girl can’t get and stay motivated to do something about violence against women, who can? I owe it to her. I owe it to all of them. I wasn’t there in her hour of need, but maybe I can help someone else somehow. If I don’t have endless natural passion for this cause, as personal as it is for me, what could I ever have more passion for? I love golf, fishing, and the Green Bay Packers. I could golf and fish my life away and watch Packer reruns on bad weather days. But those passions can’t hold a candle to this one.
Without naming names, could you share a story about an individual who benefited from your initiatives?
Autumn is from our small town. She went to the same high school as Jessie. She heard A Message from Jessie in her school wide assembly. At seventeen, she met and married a popular and handsome young man several years older than her. Happy initially, a darker side of him gradually emerged in ever-increasing outbursts of violence against Autumn. It was the classic cycle of violence and reconciliation, power and control, denial, blaming, and shaming. It almost ended in Autumn’s beating and strangulation death.
But she survived. She attached herself to our project. She learned about domestic violence. She went to work at our local service organization for victims. And she told me she wanted to share her story. We gave her small opportunities, a few minutes here and there at our local events, the 5K, the golf outing, the Fun Fair. She did great. She gained confidence and strength. She is becoming that rare survivor/thriver who is driven to share their story, as painful as that is, with others, to help victims who need leadership and support, and to help the rest of us understand this issue and aspire to change culture.
We hired a videographer to interview Autumn. She is now the subject in our online series ‘Real People Real Stories.’ And now she is applying to become a volunteer with L>h in the Wisconsin State prison system. She is healing, finding her power, and making a growing difference in her community. I am committed to Autumn’s growth and development, her peace and fulfillment in life, and I hope she becomes another L>h force in prisons and schools.
We all want to help and to live a life of purpose. What are three actions anyone could take to help address the root cause of the problem you’re trying to solve?
First, learn a little about intimate partner violence. You don’t have to become an expert; just get informed. Learn that the reason victims don’t leave isn’t because it really wasn’t bad and they are making this up, but because leaving is dangerous, potentially deadly.
The data and the experts tell us that when victims say they are afraid to leave because the offender might kill them, we should believe them, because they are often right. Learn that sexual assault isn’t one in a million; it is one in three. One in three women in our country will experience some form of sexual assault. One in four have already been raped. One in four will experience domestic violence. The numbers aren’t that different for boys; one in six for sexual assault and one in seven for domestic violence.
3000 women are killed by men every year in the U.S. Ten more Jessie’s every day. Just learn that. Then just learn the signs, not only bodily marks, and injuries, but also behavioral changes: isolation and controlling behaviors by the perpetrator; withdrawal from family, friends, and life by the victim. Don’t report without their permission as it can be dangerous. But do stay engaged, watch, and be there for them.
Next, volunteer, even just a little bit, at your local service organization. This will directly support an under-funded and likely under-resourced service organization in your community, one that literally saves endangered moms and their children. But just by being there a little, you will also accomplish the first action; you will learn volumes just by being there.
Finally, be a voice for change. Share stories and data on your social media and with your people network. Have some courage and speak up, our invisible victim/survivors are hoping desperately for change. Visit our page. Share our stuff. Get involved. Do something, anything. You matter. And most important of all, do all of it with love and forgiveness in your heart and words. Help us co-create an environment in which offenders are not hated and condemned but are treated with compassionate accountability, so we engage them in their own transformation.
“Lock em up” doesn’t work. 90% will be out within four years and back in our communities (they already are). Plus, 32 of 33 rapists will never do jail time in the first place. Hurt boys become hurt men and hurt men hurt others. Be a voice and a space for their healing and transformation too.
Based on your experience, what are the “five things you need to create a successful and effective non-profit that leaves a lasting legacy?” Please share a story or example for each.
1. A Cause You Personally Connect With and Believe In. One of the things people say to me most is that I am the most passionate person they know. No one ever said that to me for 53 years before Jessie’s death. The source of my passion? I have the biggest loss of the biggest love in the most unjust way of anyone they know. I’ve wanted to just stop so many times, but I keep coming back, without even trying, because the personal connection to the cause is so huge. A little self-care and I’m ready to go again. Everyone has a personal connection to some injustice in this world. Find the hidden blessings. Answer the calling. Your belief in your cause will fuel you through all the challenges.
In 2015 I had severe sciatica for two months. I couldn’t put one pound of pressure on my left leg for the first month. The D.A.’s office invited me to keynote their annual state conference with A Message from Jessie. And, I had written a testimonial letter nominating the Hartford P.D. for their handling of Jessie’s case and their interactions with my family. H.P.D. won the exemplary investigation of the year award and would receive it at the conference because of my letter. I dreaded the six-hour round trip drive to the conference that day; anyone who has had severe sciatica knows why. But the chance to share Jessie’s story and watch H.P.D. win the award overrode sciatica. Strong personal connection and a cause you believe in will help you overcome things you otherwise wouldn’t if it was only about you.
2. A Board of Directors that is passionately connected to the cause. One member has been on our board for a year, but six directors have served for seven years each since the beginning. Others have come and gone, but these six have powerful personal connections to the project. They include my friend and pastor whose daughter experienced domestic violence. An old high school classmate whose girls had experienced sexual abuse. The director of another agency who personally lost two coworkers and friends. The mom of two of Jessie’s friends. An old college buddy who heard of Jessie’s death on the news and reconnected with me.
These board members are all in. And, we have worked together so long, they know how to empower our team and not get in the way with power or policy disagreements. It’s beautiful. Now, only one of us is an expert in this field. That can be a problem, but we have learned to hire expert help wherever needed. Our core team is committed and moves in synch and harmony and that builds sustainability.
3. A powerful personal story that touches people’s hearts and impacts their lives. I have been stunned by the effect Jessie’s story has on people. From the news coverage the day it happened until today, eight years later, we’ve had thousands of people reach out to us to express gratitude and support for what we are trying to do.
Everyone, whether they know it or not (because most victims never tell anyone) knows someone who has experienced physical or sexual violence. I can’t talk with anyone anywhere without them saying “that happened to my daughter” or “my sister” or “me”. When we share Jessie’s story, we also show photos and videos of her, play her music, and show video of her friends talking about her. Invariably, attendees tell us afterwards that they feel like they know her, feel a connection with her. Her story never seems to get old. It hits people at their core.
Programs are critical, systems change is essential, but in my opinion, there is nothing like the power of a relatable personal story to completely engage someone in an issue they might otherwise reject.
In 2014, I went to church for the first time since the 1980s. One of Jessie’s friends invited me. Afterwards, the pastor called me and invited me out for coffee. I said, “I’m not looking for a church and I’m not looking for a pastor.” When I realized the jackass I had just been, I added, “But I guess you can’t have too many friends, so if you want to be friends, sure, I’d like a cup of coffee.” John came to coffee despite my rudeness. He listened when I told him the details of how Jessie was attacked, hog-tied, taped, raped, and strangled to death. He listened when I told him I was an atheist. When I told him I forgave Dan, I saw the emotion in his eyes. His whole religion was based on unimaginable forgiveness.
At our next coffee, I asked him to be on the board of our fledgling non-profit. He accepted, but he said, “You know I’ve been on a lot of boards, but none for more than three months.”
That was seven years ago. John is my friend now, and the loudest voice other than mine for Jessie’s legacy project. He heard her powerful story, connected it with his own daughter, and has fought for our cause ever since. That’s the power of stories.
How has the pandemic changed your definition of success?
The pandemic raged through the Wisconsin state prison system. Lots of people in close quarters. The Dept. of Corrections did everything they could to maintain safety, so they closed the prisons to volunteers, which has kept L>h from doing the thing I love most for almost two years now — sharing Jessie’s mission and messages with inmates.
Same with the schools, which not only shut down presentations but also our school project to measurably decrease violence experienced by students. Then, we lost a radio interview I was so excited about. I was scheduled for an in-studio day at WCBS in NYC, and the host wanted to introduce me to other hosts of various media and shows in the same building. The pandemic disrupted our work.
So, we had to adapt. We shifted heavily to digital media. Our “followers” and “reach” exploded. We temporarily redefined success in terms of social media reach and engagement.
The pandemic has been a lesson in doing what you can, where you are, with what you have. It has reminded us that things happen that are beyond our control, but also that people care, and we can impact them if we stay the course and adapt to change. We know domestic violence has also exploded during the pandemic, due likely to increased stress and isolation. So, we shifted our messaging to stay current and highlight what was happening. This drew more people to our cause and upped the urgency at a time when the world was saying slow down, pause.
We need to measure outcomes. L>h is not fully there yet. But we now have more attention on the markers that measure our digital engagement (followers, reach, reactions, clicks, comments, shares, etc.), which we take as some indicator of impact on real lives. So, we have changed our definition of success and our strategies, but the mission remains unchanged.
How do you get inspired after an inevitable setback?
There have been countless troubles of every kind along the path these past eight years since Jessie was murdered. Most are relatively small, but some are big. Some have taken the wind out of my sails, cut me deep, or temporarily broken my spirit. When that happens, I do four things.
First, I take some time off to have fun, rest, and recharge. Second, I reflect on what happened to see if there is a life lesson for me to learn. Third, I bring it to my coach. I’m blessed with a very high-level coach, Alan, the same man I mentioned at the beginning of this interview. The one who changed my life in when I was fishing in Alaska in 1984. Alan brings me the perfect blend of insight, brutal honesty, deep kindness and sensitivity, inspiration, and useful technology for my personal growth. Everyone should have such a coach. And fourth and most important, I talk to Jessie. And listen. And I allow myself to remember. All of it, all the painful details, all the meaningful dad memories with her, and all our love for each other. This reconnects me with the mission and totally refuels the rocket ship.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non-profit? He, she, or they might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Well, I’d really love to talk with all seven billion of us. But most especially, I’d love to talk to the following:
Joyce Meyer. Simone Biles and Ally Raisman. David Schwimmer. The Dalai Lama. Ellen DeGeneres. Kamala Harris. Ashton Kutcher. The Pope. Terry Crews. Patrick Stewart. Grace Tame.
You’re doing important work. How can our readers follow your progress online?
Website: ligth.org or https://www.theloveisgreaterthanhateproject.com/
Thank you for a meaningful conversation. We wish you continued success with your mission.
Thank you so much. As you can probably tell, this project is personal for me. Whenever anyone gives me and Jess a platform for her story and message it means everything to me. Very grateful. Thank you. Blessings.