The following is a piece written by my former student, Siobhan Becker, for her Journalism Class. She reached out to several news outlets to publish it, but they declined. Since we reach more people than many newspapers, I told her I would post it here. I added the pictures, but everything else is hers (with the exception of a couple of edits) It sums up our mission quite well…
At 8:35 a.m., a bell rings, signaling the beginning of second period at Great Hollow middle School in Nesconset. Rich Specht greets his first science class of the day. He’s got 26 eighth grade students to share his love of science with.
Today’s lesson is on the neuron, a specialized cell that sends nerve impulses throughout the body.
“It’s all about regulation,” he explains.
A typical Lesson for Mr. Specht
He gets a game of catch going with an orange foam ball to demonstrate the speed of neuron reactions- an effective way to teach visual learners. He follows this up with a story about claw machines to help his audio learners. The colorful claw machines we’re all addicted to are rigged to take advantage of humans’ slow reaction times. So if you’ve ever won a prize, you just got lucky.
The 41 minutes of class pass quickly and the bell rings at 9:16 a.m. Class is dismissed, but a handful of students stay after to talk to Rich about their favorite TV shows and to invite him to rehearsals for the school play tonight. Because to them, he’s more than their science teacher. He’s their friend.
And Rich enjoys their friendships. They’re enthusiastic and energetic. They make his job easy. They help distract him from a nightmarish reality that sneaks up on him when he’s alone with his thoughts.
The nightmare began on October 27, 2012. Rich and his family were preparing for Hurricane Sandy when miscommunication between Rich and a friend gave Rich’s 22-month-old son, Rees, an opportunity to wander out of the house and into the Specht’s backyard pond.
Rees was a brown-eyed boy who wore a permanent smile on his face and loved the word tractor.
“Everything to him was a tractor,” Rich says, shaking his head with a smile on his face.
Rees seemed to understand the meaning of kindness even at a young age.
“He would grab a flower and just hand it to you,” Rich says. “What kind of kid does that?”
Life just isn’t the same anymore for Rich, his wife Sam and their two older daughters, Abby, 10, and Lorilei, 8. They think of Rees every day. It’s hard not too. There are pictures of him in almost every room.
“I don’t think there are any of them in the bathrooms,” Rich says, laughing.
He brings extra photos of Rees to work with him. There’s one in his wallet and one on his keyring. Drawings of Rees are hung up around the classroom.
Portrait of Rees, one of many pictures that adorn the walls of the Specht House. Photo Credit: Rich Specht
The pictures don’t bother Rich when he’s teaching. He can get through five periods of science everyday without thinking about the day he lost his son, but the grief hits him at odd moments.
It washes over him during his free periods. When he thinks about all the things he was going to do with Rees. They were going to take trips upstate- Rich’s quintessential happy place. They would play sports together. And they were going to spend a lot of time playing video games.
When the grief becomes too much to bear, Rich locks the door to his classroom and turns off the lights. Sometimes he sits in the darkness, waiting for the moment to pass. Sometimes he writes. He shares moments of both despair and joy on his blog.
“I don’t feel like a blogger,” Rich says. “I only write when the mood hits me and I feel the need to.”
Rich writes more about the moments of heartbreak. The moments when he misses his son the most.
“Two years later and I am still broken into little pieces and no, I am not ‘over’ it,” he wrote on March 25. “It hurts more than I can possibly describe. There are times where the pain of losing my little boy literally causes me to stagger, forcing me to right myself… My ultimate distraction? The foundation that Samantha and I founded in Rees’ name.”
The idea for the foundation was born the night of Rees’ memorial- where family and friends gathered to mourn a boy who died two months before his second birthday. Rich spoke, reluctantly at first, about the importance of perspective.
“We worry too much about material things that separate us rather than focusing on things like kindness and compassion that bind us together,” he said.
Brian Costello, Rich’s friend and colleague, was inspired by Rich’s eulogy and came up with an idea of creating a foundation in Rees’ memory. Brian even found the perfect way to incorporate Rees’ name. The foundation’s message would be contained in the foundation’s name- ReesSpecht Life.
The non-profit foundation was built on the values of respect and kindness that Rich and Samantha had hoped to instill in their son. Their goal was simple: to spread kindness through good deeds. Rich and Samantha created business cards that asked people to promote the foundation’s mission and “pay it forward” with a good deed or a kind word. However, the Spechts needed a more comprehensible mission in order to become a 501c3 organization- because for some reason, promoting kindness was a hard concept for some people to wrap their heads around.
The natural fit for Rich and Sam, who both teach in the Smithtown School District, was a scholarship program. The ReesSpecht Life Scholarship is awarded to students who promote a sense of community. It is one of the few scholarships with no academic requirements. The scholarship is now worth $1,000 and is given out in five school districts on Long Island.
Today ReesSpecht Life offers their cards free of charge and sells bracelets, car magnets, T-shirts and a book Rich wrote. All proceeds benefit the foundation and goes to pay for things like card printing, postage, administrative costs, scholarships, grants and their holiday toy drive. Donations raised on Indiegogo, a crowdfunding website helped cover the book’s publishing costs.
In the book, a smiling Rees, dressed in a red plaid shirt and overalls, performs random acts of kindness that set a chain reaction in motion.
Rich reads his book to younger children on his speaking tour. The tour kicked off in the summer of 2013. Rich’s alma mater, Ward Melville asked him to speak at an assembly. Rich said things went well, and apparently they did. More requests rolled in soon after his first presentation.
So far, Rich has spoken at Ward Melville, Jericho Elementary School, Suffolk County Community College, Stony Brook University and the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society of New York. Dozens of schools and organizations have asked Rich to speak in the upcoming school year.
Starting this summer, Rich will visit a summer camp on the island and travel to Georgia and Florida to share Rees’ tragic story and remind people of the importance of perspective and the power of kindness. Something he feels in his heart that Rees would want him to do.
“Not long after Rees died, I awoke from a dream in which Rees told me that this was what I was supposed to do,” Rich said. “I am literally, and figuratively following my dreams.”
But to pursue this dream, he will have to give up his job teaching science to eighth graders at Great Hollow. He won’t be able to teach kids about genetics or mix chemicals in the lab anymore. And he’ll miss watching his students’ eyes light up when they make a science connection. Most of all, he’ll miss his colleagues.
He sees his coworkers as his family. They rallied around him after Rees died- preparing meals, chipping in to cover funeral costs and even purchasing Christmas gifts for Lorilei and Abby.
His closest friend is James Schiraldi, a 6-foot-4-inch tall math teacher who works in one of the classrooms below him. James remembers standing by Rich’s side during the eulogy– a defining moment in their friendship.
But their friendship was also marked by good times. Weddings. Birthday parties. The Demolition Derby upstate. And most recently, a trip to Atlantic City.
Rich asked James to become a member of ReesSpecht Life’s board of trustees when the foundation was first established. James handles the finances, helps brainstorm ideas, and books many events.
The media started reaching out to the foundation in March of 2013. Rich and Sam made appearances on local news networks and were featured in Long Island newspapers. But their reach expanded at an enormous rate a few months ago.
Photo Credit: ReesSpecht Life
The craziness began on when a Broadway actor left his waitress a $3,000 tip for his $43.50 meal in April. The actor gave all of the money that was in his account. He was one of Rich’s former students.
He left a note for his waitress on the back of the receipt thanking her for supporting him at shows.
“Thank you for your kindness and humility,” he wrote. My teacher in middle school had such a difficult experience a few years ago which has sparked me to do this.”
The story was featured on major networks like CNN, WPIX11, ABC News, FOX, Business Insider Australia, Daily Mail UK, Die Welt in Germany and The Daily Sabah in Istanbul.
News of the 7,000 percent tip reached Zooey Deschanel, star of the Fox sitcom, New Girl. Deschanel shared the story on her Facebook page, and within hours the ReesSpecht Life website went down due to a server overload.
It was after 11 p.m. when Rich got the news. He was alone watching the Mets postgame on his couch. His whole family was asleep, so he told the boy who started it all.
“I ended up speaking to Rees’ picture,” Rich says, with a smile on his face. “I remember saying to him ‘I can’t believe this is what you inspired.’”
On May 6, Rich was contacted by Hollywood producers via email. The producers expressed interest in turning [the children’s book] into a television series.
Rich posted a status on his personal Facebook page shortly after he was contacted.
“Let the crazy continue,” he wrote.
“Pay it Foodward” is another project the foundation is currently working on…
While recent events have benefitted the foundation, the business’ growth plan needs to be adjusted quickly. ReesSpecht Life is currently growing at such a rapid pace that the Spechts can barely keep up. Rich says he plans on changing the 100 percent volunteer model and will bring on more board members.
A more drastic shift has occurred in the way that Rich sees the foundation. Rich and his family originally used ReesSpecht Life as a coping mechanism. It was a distraction from the dark and quiet moments.
But the birth of their youngest daughter, Melina, six months ago has changed Rich’s mission for the foundation.
“We had experienced pure pain and loss and we literally had the opposite when Melina was born,” Rich explains.
Working on the foundation feels like calling now.
“Now I feel like I’m on the path that I’m supposed to be on,” Rich says, although he admits he thought saving the world was his calling when he was younger.
“I always had these visions of being a superhero,” Rich says.
When he was about 8-years-old, he and his cousin predicted what their lives would be like in the future. Rich told his cousin that he was going to be a superhero.
“I remember as I got older, I would always think back to the night and the conversation and think ‘My god I’m not a superhero,’” Rich says, “But there was a moment not too long ago when I was looking at a picture of Rees (in a Superman costume) and I thought back to my conversation with my cousin and I thought ‘I didn’t become a superhero but he did.’”
Rees Truly is a Superhero…
Photo Credit: Rich Specht