This past summer I was privileged with the opportunity to speak on behalf of ReesSpecht Life in front of over 400 incoming freshmen to the humanities college at the State University of New York at Stony Brook (SUNY Stony Brook).  During the presentation I recounted the story of what happened to Rees and the acts of kindness that lead to the genesis of ReesSpecht Life.  I discussed the tenants of what we are all about and after a hopefully uplifting, 40-50 minutes, I left them all with a challenge:  To change the world with acts of kindness.

Unless you were present for my presentation you might be thinking to yourself that I left these poor students with an unachievable goal.  After all, how could 400 17-18 year old’s be expected to change the world when they themselves are still relatively new to it and so few in number?  I recall seeing this very doubt echoed in their incredulous expressions and more than a couple of guffaws from the students who sat before me.  I used the following picture in the presentation:

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This image is the simplification of the process of paying it forward:  One person’s act of kindness has the potential to spread exponentially if each person in the chain does the same in turn I believe that some of the cynicism directed at my hope that we can change the world is the realization that, although this image looks so simple, the reality is that it does not function in this way.  One person’s act of kindness can surely spur others to kind acts of their own, but the chain is broken as soon as someone fails to act.  It is inevitable that some individual’s apathy and/or the entropy of daily life will ensure that the chain does not propagate in perpetuity… eventually the chain will break and the spread of kindness is halted.

One could conclude that doing what we do is then pointless:  The acts of kindness we hope to propagate are destined to stop and only the people in the chain before the weakest link benefit.  Apathy creeps in when people come to the realization that the best of our intentions, our hopes of  a changed world, are mitigated by the inaction of those who just don’t care enough to pass along the kindness.  It is only natural that these people ask themselves why should I bother, since I can’t possibly expect this to ACTUALLY change the world? 

The reason we try is simple:  It is worth it.  Change is never easy.  My Mother used to tell me over and over again that “Nothing worthwhile is ever easy to attain”.  The idea of promoting kindness is something that I often thought about before Rees died.  I often found myself dismayed at the primary focus we have here on our own needsEveryday our society is bombarded with messages about what we can do for ourselves.  I challenge you to find an advertisement that does not focus on something for you.  The message that this constant bombardment we get about doing things for ourselves, to make ourselves feel better through the aquisition of material things, is pervasive.

It’s not just the media and advertisement industry that promote this inflated sense of self importance and consumerism.  Right after 9/11, then President Bush, in an attempt to calm the collective nerves of our damaged national psyche, proposed that Americans return to their status quo: “People [should be] going about their daily lives, working and shopping and playing, worshiping at churches and synagogues and mosques, going to movies and to baseball games.”   I always felt like that was a lost opportunity:  Where was the plea to become more engaged in our communities?  Where was the request for civic pride and community awareness?  Don’t get me wrong, I do not fault President Bush, what he said was merely reflective of us as a Nation.   The President re-affirmed the idea that in America we need to do things for ourselves foremost.   We are too focused on ourselves – and I admit that I was just as guilty as just about every other American of this.

After Rees died, I saw the other side of America.  I saw the power of the collective good and how they were able to lift my family on their shoulders and carry us through our own, personal, superstorm.  Neighbors that I had never met came to my home, introduced themselves for the first time, and made us dinner.  Business owners like Bill Kelly of Kelly Brothers Landscaping donated their time and considerable resources to repair our physical world.  Past friends renewed their acquantince with me through a simple phone calls expressing their condolences.  The collective acts of kindness my family experienced kept us from teetering over into the abyss and helped lift us up to solid ground.  It was restorative.  It was comforting.  It was beautiful.  It was exceptional – and I wondered why?  Why are we surprised when a stranger does something nice for us?  Why is it when I pay for people and give them a ReesSpecht Life card that nine out of ten times they look at me with a befuddled expression and often ask me “What’s your angle?”.   After going through this ordeal, I think I know the answer:  Perspective.

The loss of a child is the ultimate perspective changer.  I have written several times about this already ( Here and Here).  My world view took a complete 180 after the loss of Rees.  From the moment I found him the reality of a forever changed world hit me like a freight train.  The loss of a child actively robs a parent of the future every single moment of their lives going forward.  I will always face a diminished life, no matter what I do, because Rees will never be a part of my physical world ever again.  There is nothing, absolutely nothing, I can do that can ever change that.  The hole created by his absence can never, ever be filled.  It seems so hopeless when I write, or think, that… and indeed that hopelessness filled me for quite some time after he died.  But like all wounds the acute pain of losing a child does ebb and give way to what I can only describe as a numbness – a desensitization, to the pain.  And like all wounds, the pain of losing a child heals better when attended to by others.

I would not be where I am today without the help of my family, friends and even complete strangers who carried Sam and I through the darkness and kept us at the precipice of the hole in our world that could have swallowed us.  I saw, firsthand, the light that humanity can shine on the darkness of loss.  Those people who touched our lives at that time provided the ultimate positive to counter-balance the negative in our world.   I witnessed the power that kindness wields over despair and its ability to restore that which was so badly damaged.  In fact, it was precisely what I witnessed in this time of despair that started ReesSpecht Life in the first place.  It dawned on me that if the acts of Kindness and generosity can lift someone who is already down, imagine what those acts could do for people who have not fallen?  What if instead of always trying to restore people to the status quo of existence, we raise the bar and lift everyone up to a higher place?  If my world could be re-calibrated from such an awful place through kindness, it only stands to reason that applying this positive force to those not suffering will only serve to lift us ALL up higher.  ReesSpecht Life is the culmination of my hypothesis that if we spread kindness to others, regardless of the situation, those people will pass it along because, like energy, kindness cannot be destroyed – only passed along.  The more kindness we spread, the more we lift ALL OF US up.

Any good hypothesis must be tested, and that brings me back to those students at Stony Brook.  Towards the end of my presentation to them, I tasked them with performing an act of kindness in Rees’ name.  We gave each of them a ReesSpecht Life card and sent them along their way.  My hope was, that at the very least, these students would leave the room with a slightly different perspective on the world and their ability to make it better.  I was happy to share my own perspective, and hoped that through my own experience they would pass along a little bit of kindness.  I found out later I was way off in my estimation.  The students at Stony Brook didn’t pass on a “little bit” of kindness, they literally passed on VOLUMES full of kindness…

About a month ago Sam and I were contacted by Erika Benhardt, the college advisor for the Undergradaute College of Human Development at Stony Brook,  and asked to come to a dinner with some of the other advisors and a select group of students who were at the presentations.  Sam and I were delighted to get another chance to meet with them and we figured we would hear about some of the acts of kindness that these students had performed.  I remember thinking about how awesome it was that I was able to motivate several of them to perform acts of kindness and could not wait for them to share.  When we arrived, I saw a group of about 20 or so students and advisors and I was ecstatic.  They were all so enthusiastic about being there and Sam and I were so thrilled to share that time with them.  Not long after we arrived they presented us with two wrapped gifts.  For the life of me I could not fathom what it was, and when Sam and I opened the gifts we could not believe our eyes:  Packaged neatly inside two extra large binders were notes, drawings,  and letters from almost ALL of the students that were at my presentations.  As I thumbed through them I was overcome with emotion at the notion that I literally had volumes full of stories about acts of kindness performed in Rees’ name.  Page after page of stories recounting acts, both big and small, whose genesis was the spirit of my little boy (click to read)

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If there was ever any doubt that what we are doing could change the world, I now have the empirical proof that we are.  Big things have small beginnings.  A year ago this time ReesSpecht Life was nothing more than a few hundred followers on a facebook page put together by a grieving father.  Today, we have over 12,000 followers and 113,000 unique visitors to our website.  We have distributed more than 25,000 ReesSpecht Life cards – and hopefully at least that many “acts” of kindness.  We have given out two Scholarships at Smithtown High School and are adding to more schools this year.  If anyone ever asks me if I believe that what we are doing is actually going to change the world, I can now reply with an affirmative:  “We are changing the world, one Rees’ piece at a time, and I have binders full of Kindness to prove it”.

 

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The following poem was written by a former student of mine.  I read this and was lost in its beauty and I just had to share it.  What a beautiful tribute to my little boy, and what we are trying to do.  I challenge you to read this without tearing up…

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Sparkle

It was not the thunder echoing through the rooms,
Nor the lightning flashing across the clouds, 
That shook me to the bone.

It was not the chilling air,
Nor the pictures of destruction of the television,
That brought tears to my eyes.

No.

It was the fact that I would never hold him in my arms again,
That caused my bones to shake.

It was the thought of never again seeing his beautiful face,
That brought tears to my eyes.

His beautiful blue eyes,
Like the water that stole him away from me,
Shining,
Glistening,
Sparkling,
Would never again steal away my anger,
Replacing it with peace.

His permanent smile,
Encouraging,
Hopeful,
Innocent,
Would never again wake me up in the mornings.

He is gone.

Yet,
In the beauty of the sunrise,
In the majestic rainbow after a storm,
He is still here.

When his life ended,
I was given a new one.

A life with which I will put his smile,
Encouraging,
Hopeful,
Innocent,
Onto the faces of others.

A life where I will make my neighbor’s eyes
Shine,
Glisten,
and Sparkle.

 

I hope that all is well… the thoughts and prayers of my family are with you and your family.

Sincerely,
Sam M.

Thank you, Sam.  You made our Hearts Sparkle with your Beautiful words…






captain reesSince Rees’ passing I have come to realize that there are no coincidences…

Today was a really rough day for me personally, and I was just not feeling the Halloween Spirit. Normally, I go all out for Halloween.  One of the many perks of being a Middle School Teacher is that I get to dress up for Halloween and act out like the big kid that I am.  Over the years my costumes have ranged from as simple as Fred Flinstone (whom I share more than a passing resemblance to) to my most complex one:  a full, home made, Optimus Prime Costume. Keeping with tradition,  this year I was supposed to be Captain America, and the girls purchased a Captain America shield for me to complete my costume.

As the day progressed I just never really got into the Halloween spirit, and as time to head out Trick or Treating came around my lack of enthusiasm sapped my will to don my Captain America Costume.  I figured since  I already had a Superman Shirt on (I wear a Superman S everyday since Rees died)  I was going out in that alone and it would be good enough.  The look on the Girls’ faces revealed their disappointment that I was not dressing up, so as a consolation, I grabbed the Captain America Shield at the last minute and said I was  “Super Soldier”.  The girls both glared at me with a skeptical eye, but dismissed it as Daddy being silly and the crisis was averted.

So we headed out, the whole family including all of the Grandparents, and we made up for the Halloween that did not happen for us last year.  I reveled in seeing my little girls go house to house, dressed as superheros, like their baby brother would have been.  Fleeting smiles faded to imperceptible grimaces as I imagined Rees joining his big sisters for the first time and what could have been… what should have been.

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We proceeded to go house to house for about an hour, and the girls scored quite a haul of candy that should fuel the next three weeks of sugar rushes.  Sam and I stayed back for the most part and merely kept a keen eye on them as they progressed door to door, asking politely for candy.  It was a nice family moment, the feelings of which eroded away my sour mood that marked the beginning of our trek.

Eventually, Lori started to grow tired and we began to make our way back home.  Abby and Lori both took inventory of their new-found candy treasures and their laughter and smiles served to fuel my soul.  For that brief moment, all was right in the world and I smiled.  It was at this time that I spotted another family making their way down the street.  I saw multiple children dressed as fairy tale princesses and various comic book heroes.  One hero stood out in particular:  Captain America.  A little boy, no older than maybe 5 or six was wearing a full Captain America Costume, with one glaring exception: his shield.  Without even thinking I approached the diminutive Super Soldier and asked him where his shield was?  His parents said he didn’t have one and I immediately removed my Captain America shield and gave it to him.  I told him Captain America can’t go far without his shield and wished the family well.  As I walked away I immediately thought to give them a ReesSpecht life card and realized that I had left my wallet in my car.  Oh well. I thought to myself, it’s the act that matters – Rees knows.  As we made our way home the thought that  I did not have ReesSpecht Life cards with me tugged at my brain like a child pulling their parent’s pant leg.

I really felt like I had missed an opportunity to share Rees’ message.  When we arrived home some 15 minutes later it was time for me to go pick up the pizza we had ordered earlier.  I grabbed a couple of ReesSpecht Life cards and decided that I was going to try and find Captain America’s family and give them the cards.  I drove around for about ten minutes before I spotted them, and when I did I immediately got out of my car and headed over to them.  My first thought was that these people are going to think I was some nutcase, or that I wanted my shield back.  I told them that I wanted to give them these cards when I gave their son the shield, but that I did not have any on me.  I politely asked them to pay the kindness forward and started to walk away.  It was then that Rees’ spirit intervened and the real trick and treat of this Halloween happened…

“Are you the father?” a woman asked.  I looked at this woman, who seemed vaguely familiar to me but I could not place her.  I replied that no, I was not the Boy’s father.  “No, the cards, Rees – are you Rees’ Father?” she said eyes wide open.  If this hadn’t happened to me before I would have been more surprised than I was, but with over 20,000 ReesSpecht Life cards out there, and 11,500 followers on facebook I am finding these moments are increasing in frequency.  I told her that I was indeed Rees’ father and what she said next sent a chill through me (rather apropos for halloween).  “I was the nurse in the ER on that day”, she tenderly said, “I was the one who wrapped him in the blanket and gave him to you”.  My whole world stopped right there.  I realized, in some ways, I was staring at the first Rees’ piece.  Her simple act of swaddling our little Boy so that we could hold him one last time was the ultimate gift in an untenable situation.  She gave us the gift of saying “Auf Wiedersehen” (I don’t believe in goodbye’s) and a last tender moment.  I immediately hugged this woman, whose name I forgot in the intensity of the moment, and thanked her.  I did not know what else to say.  She told me that what we were doing to honor him was “Beautiful” and I thanked her again and walked away, trying to hide my tears that just burst through the wall of my last reserves of will power.

I got in the car and immediately drove away, blubbering like a little child and thanking Rees out loud.  Again, he came to me when I needed it most.  Had I not forgotten the cards at home, or had I not had that nagging feeling to get them later this moment would never have happened.  Every time that doubt creeps into my mind, glimpses of Rees’ presence make themselves known.  In the past year I have seen too many signs, too many pieces of Rees to think that anything else could explain my experiences.  Today, of all days, when I faced a trial of life almost as difficult as losing Rees, he made himself known to me.  My gaze rarely needs to wander far to find Rees’ pieces – I find them everywhere now.  Prior to this past year I believed that every “amazing” or “unexplained” event we gave meaning to was merely a coincidence – a conformation bias we create to make ourselves feel better.  Rees’ pieces continue to prove otherwise:  I don’t believe in coincidences anymore…