June is Jesse’s birthday month. Each year, since my six-year-old son’s murder in the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy in 2012, people from all over the world continue to come together in the form of concerts, 5K’s, and online events to honor, remember, and celebrate all the lives lost on this tragic day. In a recent interview with a reporter, as we were talking about my organization’s annual Month of Fun fundraiser, he exclaimed how amazed he was that Jesse’s spirit seemed to continue to live on and was being kept alive through our work. I told him I, too, was amazed at the love and appreciation shown for Jesse and how his story inspires and motivates children, educators, parents, and even first responders everywhere.
In reality, though, we’re also recognizing another year of Jesse being gone. Every day when I leave the house I see his swing set, now overgrown and unused. His school bus still comes by the house every morning like clockwork. In the beginning I made sure that I wasn’t home to see the yellow bus now adorned with former Sandy Hook principal Dawn Hochsprung’s message reminding us to “Be nice to each other, it’s really all that matters.” She was a victim that day as well. Now, presumably when it’s ahead of schedule, the driver pauses in front of the farm to enjoy the pastoral scene of horses grazing and chickens munching on ticks, or perhaps to remember my son. I’m not sure which.
I always think about the possibilities of what Jesse would have accomplished if he had the chance to live the rest of his life. Jesse was born brave. He might have been a cowboy. He was already riding, taking lessons, and attending rodeos with his dad. I try to picture him all grown up as a first responder, like his older stepbrother, keeping us safe and doing his best to serve. Perhaps he would have devoted his life to art. He loved to paint and had natural talent as he covered his canvas with bright colors, lines, and shapes. I have his paintings hanging in every room of my home.
Jesse had a mini iPod and used to listen to it with earphones in his carseat enroute to the grocery store or wherever we traveled together. I would glance in my rearview mirror and see his head nodding to the beat and his arms moving side by side as he swayed in his seat. On one of our last nights together we cuddled in bed while we watched Justin Beiber’s documentary, ‘Never Say Never.’ The title was the same as one of Bieber’s songs and it happened to be one of Jesse’s favorites that he listened to on repeat. The video chronicles Beiber’s rise to fame and focuses on footage from his concerts. As I closed the iPad and cradled little Jesse in my lap with his head resting beneath my arm, he said excitedly, ‘Mom, I know what I want to be when I grow up. I want to be one of Justin Bieber’s backup dancers!’
I will never know what he could have accomplished in his life, but Jesse’s story, the chalkboard message he wrote that said, ‘Nurturing Healing Love,’ and his courageous act of saving nine of his classmates before losing his own life have inspired millions and serves as the foundation of a leading Social and Emotional Learning and Character Development program. It wasn’t what I would have ever imagined, but then again we can’t always choose what happens to us. What we can do is choose how we respond. For me it was to honor Jesse’s memory by using his message of “Nurturing Healing Love” to help children and adults around the world by spreading an awareness of the urgent need for more love and connection, kindness, and peace, and that we can choose this ourselves.
In what is becoming an increasingly divided and angry world, we must unite in love. This is a choice that we make each day. That is why I started the Choose Love Movement. Some individuals, because of childhood trauma, lack of love and connection in their lives, or the social and emotional intelligence to overcome, are not aware it’s a choice. For the rest of us, we are capable of spreading this message and making sure that our children — all children — have access to life transforming and even life-saving essential skills that can be taught. For those of us who want to do better and be better, like myself, our programming is available to bring into your home and communities, and even businesses, to fortify everyone with the ability to have healthy relationships, the key to happiness according to Harvard University; to be able to manage our emotions; to grow through and even be strengthened by challenges in our lives; to make responsible decisions; and so much more.
The Choose Love Movement offers this essential programming at no cost. Long-term research proves it can reduce and prevent so much of the suffering we’re experiencing in our world that can lead us to feel unsafe. Our children deserve a safe school culture, and we can achieve this in every school. Everyone can be part of the solution to making our schools safe and creating a more peaceful and loving world so we do not experience another Sandy Hook.
Happy Birthday, my precious Jesse! I love you and miss you and I am working every day to help us Respond, Recover, and Rebound. Together we can do this by Choosing Love!