There are many statistics on childhood bullying that are readily available:

According to the most recent studies from American SPCC

  • Been Bullied
    28% of U.S. students in grades 6–12 experienced bullying.
    20% of U.S. students in grades 9–12 experienced bullying.10
  • Bullied Others
    Approximately 30% of young people admit to bullying others in surveys.
  • Seen Bullying
    70.6% of young people say they have seen bullying in their schools.
    70.4% of school staff have seen bullying. 62% witnessed bullying two or more times in the last month and 41% witness bullying once a week or more.

Clearly, bullying is a problem for school age children – but with all these statistics there are almost none that address:

When bullies “grow up”

I am a heavy man.  I was an overweight child. Having been this way almost my entire life, I have had my fair share of up-close exposure to bullies.  If you name it I can probably say that I have been called it… Fatty, fatso, fat-ass, lard-ass, blimp, wide-load, etc.  I’ve heard them all and then some.  

One rather creative term that I specifically remember was “chibbles and tits”.  No morning bus ride was complete without a serenade from the back of the bus of “chibbles and tits” set to the theme from the kibbles and bits dog food commercials.  I recall feeling as if the whole bus was a part of the chorus with me powerless to stop them.  

Those words, and many others, were like a punch in the gut every single day.  Most mornings I would arrive at school trying desperately to hide the tears welling up in my eyes so as to not give my tormentors the satisfaction of knowing they had hurt me.  The terrible truth is those words did hurt me.  I soon began to believe what they were telling me: I was a worthless fat pile of garbage – deserving of every name they bestowed upon me.  I couldn’t hold back the flood of tears indefinitely.  Most nights I cried myself to sleep; wishing for dreams where I possessed the power to fight back…

My childhood was filled to the brim with many moments similar to that.  Thankfully, although the weight has remained, the memories and their effects have faded.  I was fortunate to have a support system of two parents and extended family and friends who helped me develop the strength of character I needed to not allow the taunting to cause any long term effects.  The real solution, I found, was kindness.  “Kill ’em with kindness” my father used to say to me. The support of my family and friends granted me the ability to rise above the taunting and accept who I was.

The flip side of the coin

Unfortunately, whereas I was able to rise above my negative body image, my older sister Kim was not so lucky.  She dealt with many of the issues I did as well,  and I can only assume that my parents provided my sister with the same advice they did to me.   Sadly, for whatever reason, the taunting she received (complete with her own personal commercial inspired slur of “double bubble”) had a much more deleterious effect on her.  What’s even sadder is the fact that her suffering went unnoticed for years.  

By the time she reached high school, Kim seemed to be the model of the adolescent body image success story.  In a short period of time she blossomed from the stereotypical awkward, overweight band geek, to a stunning, athletic beauty who seemed to have everything going for her.  In what seemed like an instant, my big sister became everything that I wasn’t.  She was gorgeous, popular and had a social circle whose circumference seemed astronomical to my twelve year old, chubby and nerdy self.  

From the outside looking in, she appeared as though she had it all. But, looks can be – and more often than not are – deceiving. It turns out that the image she saw in every mirror was a much darker reflection than anyone in my family could have comprehended. Unbeknownst to us, Kim had been suffering from bulimia, a terrible fact that she had successfully hidden for years.  For most of this time, we were none the wiser of her binging and subsequent purges.  It wasn’t until I sneaked into her room one day and found her “stash” that her secret was uncovered.

With her secret out, the time for healing was at hand; but true healing only happens when those suffering the injury are willing to help themselves.  Sadly, my sister was not in the right place to see it that way and she naturally rebelled against my mother’s (and to a lesser extent my father’s) attempts to get her treatment.  She half-heartedly attempted to deal with the bulimia only as a means by which to placate them.

Although it appeared she was on the road to recovery, she was simply discovering other ways to hide her pain.  Feeling a sense of disapproval from my parents, my sister started reckless choices as she sought out affirmation and acceptance.  In response to my parents’ disapproval, Kim desperately sought out someone who would enable her…

“You’re going out with WHO?” were the first words uttered from my mouth when my sister told me she was going out on a date with a guy I had known since grade school.  Unbeknownst to her, he was part of a group of people who had bullied me when I was younger.  I was crushed.  The only saving grace I had was the knowledge that, sooner or later, his true colors would eventually come out.

That day took almost twenty years to arrive.  Her now boyfriend eventually convinced her she needed to get away from her family and they moved out to Arizona in the summer of 1993, and they married shortly after.   I am ashamed to admit that I had very little contact with my sister during her marriage.  I made a couple of visits out to see her, but they were few and far between. Her now husband had succeeded in separating her from her family and I was complicit in it.  We gave the bully all of the control he wanted.

Bullies love control

The very act of bullying someone is a means by which to exert control.  My sister, with her diminished self esteem and the ramifications of bulimia, proved to be an easy mark. Throughout their marriage he would constantly berate and belittle her, reminding her of how his support (i.e. control) was the only reason she had a roof over her head.  

He was clearly a master manipulator; a fact lost on my sister.  She only realized it when he had opened several lines of credit in her name without permission.  When my sister confronted him he did what he always did: He belittled her and told her it was her fault. Taking his cue from a Saturday morning cartoon villain, he blamed Kim for her meddling, explaining had she not looked into it, he would have paid it all off and she would have been none the wiser.  When she asked how he did it without her approval, he went on to remind her that he had control of everything, and her willful ignorance was tantamount to permission.

Although my sister has now been divorced from him for five years, in some ways his control over her has actually worsened.  Although physically separated, their children remain a permanent connection that he continues to manipulate to gain control.  She is bombarded with insulting texts thinly disguised as inquiries into the children’s welfare as well as her own.  He continues to belittle and berate her with every opportunity he can.  The bully can’t let go.

I ain’t heavy, I’m her brother…

Last week I finally decided I’d had enough.  I  reached out to my former brother-in-law to implore him stop harassing my sister. His response: “Hey, Rich, go [have sex with] yourself”. “You’re a pathetic human being”. “Still using big words to justify your [expletive] arrogant way”. “You fat [expletive]”. In the wake of this pathetically predictable response, I answered with, “Classy to the last.” and figured that was it.  It served as an instant reminder why I never engaged with him.  Then my phone continued to chime.

He continued to text me.  A stream of insults followed.  Every single one of them a reference to my weight.  It transported me back to my school days.  With all due respect to my nine year old self, did he really think those words would effect me now?  Losing my only son hurt me more than any words he could hurl at me possibly could.  The fact he couldn’t recognize that reminded me the he didn’t grow up at all.  The texts continued for days – just random insults and taunts.  I simply blocked his number and moved on.

Unfortunately, my sister cannot do the same.  The fact that they share custody of their children ensures their continued communication.  I experienced, in a microcosm, what my sister lives with on a daily basis, and I simply flipped a switch and shut him off.  Imagine what twenty five years of hearing these things over and over without the ability to turn it off does to you?

For years I felt powerless in my ability to help her, and when I tried to take a more proactive role, his response to me reminded me of the futility of taking on a bully.  I grew despondent, wishing there was more I could do for my sister and the countless other women who find themselves in similar situations.  And then I realized the “solution” is right here.  You are reading it.

Cultivate Kindness

Don’t let people tell you that bullies never win. Bullies can, and do “win”.  For many, bullying is an effective way of gaining, and maintaining control.  If it weren’t a successful strategy, it simply wouldn’t persist.  So, if this is the case, then how do we stop a bully?  Clearly, ignoring them is not the surefire remedy we wish it to be, as my failure with my sister’s tormentor proves.  The answer is surprisingly simple, and it’s one that stares me in the face every day: “Cultivate Kindness”.  

Bullies desire control above all else.  So, how do you take that control away?  

Simple: You take control. We must stop being bystanders and start being activists.  Activism isn’t storming the castle and  the throwing of stones.  Activism is taking control of the narrative and rewriting it.  

You don’t stop a bully by raising your voice or your fists.  You stop a bully by preventing them from being one in the first place.  According to research, teaching children kindness and compassion for others stands as the single best way to stop bullying.  Cultivate Kindness: The ReesSpecht Life Foundation does just that.  We speak to children all over the country about the importance of kindness.   

As for the bullies that are already out there – the ones we can’t get through to?  What about the bullies who “grow up”?

The answer is still kindness.  We need to get over this misconception that kindness and compassion are weaknesses.  Make no mistake: they are strengths!  We need to promote kindness and bring the majority of us who believe in it, front and center.  The time has come for us to give a voice to the power of collective human kindness.  When a kind person sees a bully, it’s incumbent upon them to say it.  Let others know.  Remind the bullies that we have the numbers, not them.  Bullies count on, and take advantage of, our collective apathy.  True kindness is standing up and speaking out for what is moral and just in this world; and for each other.  As individuals we can be targets.  As a collective voice we can drown out those negative ones that seek to control us and our every move.  

My nine year old self dreamed of a time where I had the power to stop a bully.  It turns out I didn’t need to dream at all.  The power was always there…

You want to stop a bully? It turns out that my father’s advice all those years ago was exactly right: “Kill em’ with kindness”.   

For a more detailed version of this story, telling much more of Kim’s story click here

Please share your thoughts below:

RICH SPECHT is an author, public speaker and advocate for kindness.  Rich authored the award winning children’s book  A Little Rees Specht Cultivates Kindness.  He and his wife, Samantha, are the co-founders of the ReesSpecht Life Foundation which they formed in the wake of the loss of their only son, Richard Edwin-Ehmer (Rees) Specht at 22 months old.  The acts of kindness that the family received after Rees’ passing inspired them to “pay forward” that kindness; which the foundation does in the form of scholarships for High School seniors who demonstrate a commitment to their community, compassion and respect, as well as the distribution of more than four hundred thousand ReesSpecht Life “pay it forward” cards.  An animated television series featuring the themes and characters from Rich’s books is in the works.  The book and television adaptations of A Little Rees Specht Cultivates Kindness represents the culmination of Rich’s goal to help make this world a little better, one Rees’ piece at a time.  Rich currently resides in Sound Beach, New York with his wife, Samantha, daughters, Abigail, Lorilei and Melina as well as his angel above, Rees.

toydrive16

Please consider supporting our 2016 Toy Drive!  This year we have over 40 drop-off locations in Nassau and Suffolk Counties.  Over the past four years, the ReesSpecht Life Foundation has collected over 10,000 toys for family’s in need.  We hope to make this year our most successful ever.  We cannot do it without your help.  Please refer to the list below for drop-off locations and addresses.  Drive runs from now until December 12th.  Thank you!

ReesSpechtfully,

Rich and Samantha Specht

dropoff-locations

seeds-of-kindnessHelp us bring kindness front and center, where it belongs…

The ReesSpecht Life Foundation is running a short fundraiser to help us raise the funds to grow our programs and continue spreading the seeds of kindness world-wide.  We believe in the power of kindness to change the world for the better.  This past year has seen a great divide form in our country and it is our goal to remind us all that kindness is the greatest single factor that unites US ALL together.  We are offering these limited time “Spread the Seeds of Kindness” T-shirts and hoodies from now until December 4th only.  ALL proceeds from the sale will go to our charitable endeavors.  To view the items for sale, head over to www.booster.com/cultivate-kindness and buy a shirt.  It’s that simple.  Every shirt we sell helps us to plant the seeds of kindness.  Stop wishing for a better world and let us help make it happen, one Rees’ piece at a time.

About the ReesSpecht Life Foundation:

Get your shirt now and help us make the difference you are looking for… (Click picture for ordering info)

Click Here to Purchase your shirts

Click Here to Purchase your shirts

cultivatekindnessyinyangThis election brought out the worst in all of us and now it is (effectively) over.  Half of the country is celebrating and the other half is full of apprehension and fear.  As I write this my Facebook feed is blowing up with many of my friends and family lamenting the coming apocalypse.  I for one am actually relieved.  I tend to get worked up in the short term and then calm down and collect my thoughts and get right back to solving problems.

Nothing has changed for me tonight.  Nothing will change in January.  My path going forward is unhindered and the only thing that will change along that way is the scenery.  I remember the feeling of absolute hopelessness I had after my little boy died four years ago.  In that moment I thought I would never get past the terrible loss I endured.  It felt as if a part of my soul was ripped out and that life was just not worth living anymore.  It felt like my own little, personal, apocalypse.  The truth is it’s never as bad as you think…

Soon after Rees died I started to think about his loss, and its effect on me, and began to look at it as a problem that needed solving.  Life threw one of the worst experiences it could at me.  I recognized that this terrible negative could only be countered by a positive of equal magnitude.  The darkness of the void Rees’ passing created seemed limitless; requiring a commensurate power to illuminate it.  I found that power.  It is kindness.

It was the kindness of family, friends and strangers that lifted me from edge of the maw of hopelessness.  It was kindness that put a smile on my wife’s and my face when drove home from Rees’ memorial to see our yard completely cleaned up from the devastation of Hurricane Sandy.  It was kindness that put gas in our generator for the two weeks we were deprived of power in the wake of Rees’ passing.  It was kindness that reminded me of the best of people.  It was kindness that showed me that, no matter how bad things are, a generous act can always lift you up.  Kindness proved that no matter how far life may seem to beat you down, It’s never as bad as you think it is…

If it weren’t for Rees’ death, I don’t think I would have ever had the perspective I do now about just how powerful kindness is.  Seeing it’s power, in contrast to the devastation I felt, gave me hope where none existed before. It turns out that hope is the key.  Hope is the dividing line between darkness’ Yin and light’s Yang.  Hope is what got me through the worst time of my life – and if you let it in, it will help you get past the feelings you may have right now.

Hope is the secret ingredient that is baked into our democracy.  The founding fathers were wise men who understood that the way forward is accomplished by balancing the disparate views of the electorate.  The balance is not static – it is constantly in motion, tipping back and forth over time.  It turns out that hope is the fulcrum upon which everything is balanced.  Just when you think things will go too far on one side, hope shifts the load to bring balance back.  It may often seem like things are going to tip too far and bring the whole system down, but it’s never as bad as you think it is…

So tonight I sit here with that truth in mind.  Just as hope kept me from teetering into the maw of oblivion after Rees’ death, it will get you through this time.  And if you are happy with outcome, hope will help you see better days ahead.  So as we move forward into the next four years, let’s not let our differences divide us.  Let’s look to what we share, and cultivate that.  My mission this morning was to cultivate kindness, and it will remain my mission when I awake tomorrow.  Nothing has changed other than the scenery.  Don’t let divisiveness rule the day.  Let’s focus on the things that matter and let the other stuff balance itself out on the see-saw of life.  Regardless of how you feel today, the power to make the world a better place still resides in you.  It is my hope that you will continue to cultivate it, one kind act, one Rees’ piece, at a time…

RICH SPECHT is a father of four who holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Mary Washington and a master’s degree in liberal studies from Stony Brook University.  Prior to embarking on his career as a public speaker and advocate for kindness, Rich was a science teacher for 15 years at Great Hollow Middle School, in Nesconset, New York.  In addition to his speaking, Rich is also the published author of the award winning children’s book  A Little Rees Specht Cultivates Kindness.  Rich and his wife, Samantha, are the co-founders of the ReesSpecht Life Foundation which they formed in the wake of the loss of their only son, Richard Edwin-Ehmer (Rees) Specht at 22 months old.  The acts of kindness that the family received after Rees’ passing inspired them to “pay forward” that kindness; which the foundation does in the form of scholarships for High School seniors who demonstrate a commitment to their community, compassion and respect, as well as the distribution of almost four hundred thousand ReesSpecht Life “pay it forward” cards.  The themes and characters from Rich’s book(s) are currently slated to become an animated children’s television series.  The book and television adaptations of A Little Rees Specht Cultivates Kindness represents the culmination of Rich’s goal to help make this world a little better, one Rees’ piece at a time.  Rich currently resides in Sound Beach, New York with his wife, Samantha, daughters, Abigail, Lorilei and Melina as well as his angel above, Rees.

 

sometimes it is hard to look in the mirror

A reflection of all of us…

The end is nigh…

Thankfully, mercifully, the U.S. election season ends this coming Tuesday, November 8th.  I am almost certain that I speak for most of us that the date can’t arrive soon enough.  It seems like post after post on social media is about the election.  Friends share stories with me about people judging them based on their political choice.  Compared to four years ago things appear much worse now and the polarization seems ready to go nuclear.

The lamentation I most often see is the indignation of choosing between the “lesser of two evils” in this election.  Post after post on my news feed reiterates this.  These posts almost always end with the same conclusion:  “We don’t deserve candidates this bad.”

Of all the complaints that pop up on my social media accounts, the idea these candidates were “forced upon us” appears most frequently. To these people, the unpalatable choice of either candidate proves how broken the system is.

I couldn’t disagree more… Contrary to popular belief, the system is working exactly as intended.  In fact, I truly believe, the system is working perfectly.  Our founding fathers provided, within the framework of the constitution, a dynamic system that could adapt to an ever-changing society.

The beauty of our system is that it provides the opportunity, if we wish, of basically hitting the reset button every four years.  In theory, the nomination process should allow for people with similar viewpoints to choose a candidate that best represents them.  This candidate then runs against the choice of the group with disparate views and the electorate then gets the chance to choose the best of the best.

You call these two choices the best of the best?

The key here is this is the theory behind our election process, but is not how it works in practice.  In practice, only about twenty five percent of voting eligible Americans participate in the presidential primaries.  A full three quarters of us don’t participate in the process at all. The majority of Americans abdicate their power of choice to someone else.  We make the mistake of thinking that someone else will make the choice for us.  They are figuratively saying, “Wake me up when it’s time to elect a president”.

Therein lies the real problem.  The truth is that 75% of the people complaining about how deplorable Trump is and how corrupt Hillary is never made their voice heard in the first place!  Three quarters of us declined our chance to participate in the first place, yet we are now collectively complaining about the result of our apathy.  The enemy here isn’t Hillary or Donald.  The real enemy is our apathy.

I realize that this blog seems, at first glance, like a departure from my usual writings.  In fact, when I told my mother I was writing a blog about the election, she immediately cautioned me to “be careful what you write… you don’t want to offend anyone”.  It turns out this election is a perfect representation of everything our movement is about: Reminding people of the power we possess when we work towards a goal collectively.  As always, my intention is not to offend, rather to inspire.  I promised my mother that I would accomplish the latter. (Feel free to tell me in the comments if I succeeded)

ReesSpecht Life and its “Cultivate Kindness” message started in the midst of the 2012 elections.  November 3rd, 2012, one week after the tragic drowning of my son Rees, found me addressing the throng of people at his memorial.  I posed a simple request: Focus on that which brings us together – not what divides us.  In the days leading up to Rees’ death I too was a part of the chorus of discontent that permeated everything at the time.  The kindness we received in the wake of his death opened my eyes up to its inherent power.  I learned, the hard way, the error of focusing on our differences.  As I spoke, I vividly recall seeing heads nod in agreement.  Kindness, I said, was the one thing we could all agree on.  Our focus should be on lending a helping hand, raising each other up, not putting those who dissent down.

Everyone in attendance agreed, not because of some duty to assuage a grieving father, but because those words were truth. Those words are just as true today as they were four years ago.  Sadly, when I look at my newsfeed, I see what I saw then, only it’s even more pervasive now.  People see an existential threat to their being in the candidate they oppose.  All i hear is why one candidate is “the worst” and how voting for them is tantamount to willfully choosing to initiate the apocalypse.

How did it get this bad?  How are we in this position?  There are plenty of hands out there pointing the finger of blame trying to offer the answer – but their one finger is pointing at the wrong cause…

When we point the finger of blame at someone, there are three fingers pointing back to you – Anonymous

Each of us is to blame.  We each carry a piece of guilt for the ultimate transgression: Apathy.  The sad reality is that people are not as invested in our political system as they should be.  I hear excuses all the time as to why, but let’s be honest… Those answers are lies our brains tell us to make us feel better about the truth our apathy spawns.  Statistically, the majority of you reading this are more invested in; a) Your favorite sports team b) Your favorite reality TV show c) Celebrity gossip d) A hobby e) all of the above.  If you are, this isn’t a condemnation – it’s an affirmation of the truth.

The real reason we are stuck with the choice between Mr. Rock and Mrs. Hardplace is because, collectively, we didn’t invest the time into doing the little things that would make the biggest difference today.  Instead we chose the two candidates with name recognition, making the easy choice that allowed us to focus on what really matters – What Kim Kardashian is wearing today!

So that’s it then?  It’s all our fault because we don’t care.  Thank you Mr. Kindness for ruining my day…

Trump and Clinton are our societal reflection in the mirror.  It is no more possible to change the current state of this election than it is to instantly change your own reflection in the mirror.  The greatest irony is that self-reflection is the first step to changing our reflection in the mirror.  You must first identify the problem and then begin a plan to, incrementally and slowly, make the changes you need going forward.  In other words, you have to do it piece by piece.

One little piece at a time…  It’s not a coincidence that those very words are in our motto.  The one thing I truly understand now is that real, lasting, positive change does not happen in an instant.  It takes time.  It needs to be cultivated.  You cannot grow seeds if, at the same time you are trying to nurture them, you throw garbage on top of them.  If we want to make the world a better place, it has to start with us.  If this election proves anything it’s that people are willing to shatter the mirror rather than look at the reflection anymore.

Put the hammer down.  I understand you don’t like our reflection.  Stop pointing your finger, you are only pointing at yourself anyhow.  I challenge us all to be reflective and stop lamenting the image in the mirror.  I get that you are unhappy with the way things are; so go out and change it.  If you don’t think that is possible read this:

As I stood in front of family and friends last night I spoke from my heart: a broken heart whose pieces the love of all those present began to restore and fortify. Cynicism and doubt defined me for far too long, and the outpouring of support is restoring my faith in humanity. My Son did not die in vain, for I have a new purpose in life; to channel his spirit and try to restore all of our faith in what we can do when we come together. As A society we have moved in a direction too concerned with the material things that do not matter, and I wish to reset our compasses to the intangibles of love, compassion and cooperation. Pass this on to all those who matter to you… And more importantly pass this along to those who you have not considered or thought twice about. ReesSpecht life.  – Richard Specht 11/3/2012

I wrote those words the night of my little boy’s memorial.  A night four days removed from the devastation of Super Storm Sandy.  A night where I feared no one would show up, only to see the funeral home filled beyond capacity.  My reflection of that night changed the course of my life and lives of countless others touched by the over 390,000 kindness cards distributed worldwide in Rees’ name.  Prior to that moment I felt as you may now… That my world was beyond repair and all hope was lost.  That all changed when I had the chance to reflect on the best the world has to offer and work to cultivate it.

Some people tell me I chose the hard path, and that others couldn’t do this.  To those people I say, “Put the hammer down”.  The best case scenario from smashing that mirror is you being stuck picking up a million pieces of your shattered self.  The worst case?  You cut yourself – deeply.  Changing your reflection doesn’t happen all at once.  Changing your world doesn’t happen all at once.  The greatest, and longest lasting, change happens when we focus on the little things and work to make them better.  Stop complaining about the state of the world and start making it better.  Focus on what brings us together and cultivate that.  The world isn’t going to end on November 9th, so what are you waiting for then?  Go out and make this world a better place, one Rees’ piece at a time…

RICH SPECHT is a father of four who holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Mary Washington and a master’s degree in liberal studies from Stony Brook University.  Prior to embarking on his career as a public speaker and advocate for kindness, Rich was a science teacher for 15 years at Great Hollow Middle School, in Nesconset, New York.  In addition to his speaking, Rich is also the published author of the award winning children’s book  A Little Rees Specht Cultivates Kindness.  Rich and his wife, Samantha, are the co-founders of the ReesSpecht Life Foundation which they formed in the wake of the loss of their only son, Richard Edwin-Ehmer (Rees) Specht at 22 months old.  The acts of kindness that the family received after Rees’ passing inspired them to “pay forward” that kindness; which the foundation does in the form of scholarships for High School seniors who demonstrate a commitment to their community, compassion and respect, as well as the distribution of almost four hundred thousand ReesSpecht Life “pay it forward” cards.  The themes and characters from Rich’s book(s) are currently slated to become an animated children’s television series.  The book and television adaptations of A Little Rees Specht Cultivates Kindness represents the culmination of Rich’s goal to help make this world a little better, one Rees’ piece at a time.  Rich currently resides in Sound Beach, New York with his wife, Samantha, daughters, Abigail, Lorilei and Melina as well as his angel above, Rees.

 

 

I swore he was in that seat again...

Richard “Rees” Specht 12/19/10 – 10/27/12

Four years, 390,000 kindness cards and one promise.

Tomorrow, October 27th, 2016 will mark four years since we lost our little boy to a drowning in our backyard pond.  That figure seems incalculably large when contrasted against how long each day, hour, minute and second felt right after my son died.  Back then, time seemed to possess a cruel irony: Every second after he left us feeling like an eternity, while the 22 months he was here passing instantaneously.

Four years later and I have found that time has yet again managed to impart another cruelty upon me: It feels as though we lost him both yesterday and a lifetime ago. How can it be that time has both moved faster than I can perceive while simultaneously seeming to stand still?  My memories of him seem to have faded commensurate to time’s passage, yet my love for him remains as strong as it ever was.  It’s a paradox that vexes my, sometimes overly logical, brain.

The paradoxes don’t end there.  I often find myself wishing to make this pain go away, only to realize that my pain is a manifestation of my love I cannot directly express to him anymore.  Memories of past embraces find me holding nothing but anguish.  The echoes of his laughter, physically long gone, still reverberate in my mind.  Yesterday’s hope, filled with joy as I watched him grow is replaced with today’s sorrow that he will never grow up.

With each new yesterday gone by, time seems bent on taking little pieces of him away while simultaneously reminding me that he is gone. Time is that travel companion that never leaves your side, never stops talking AND makes you carry all the baggage.  I often wish I could simply ditch this unwanted travel-mate, but I know there is nowhere to go in which it wont find me.  No matter how much I try to ignore it, time always has a way of catching back up and reminding me of the things I would rather forget…

They say the more that things change, the more they stay the same.  I never truly understood that saying until recently.  As the strain in my relationship with my temporal companion grows, I see that the linear path I thought we were on together is more like a circle.  I feel like I am moving ahead, but time keeps tugging at me, ever so slightly, causing my path to imperceptibly arc and circle back on itself.  All I want to do is move forward and time keeps bringing me back to where I started.

It took four years, but I am pretty certain that I just finished my first circuit.  Four years ago, as I stood in front of family, friends, and even complete strangers at Rees’ memorial, I unknowingly started on the path I find myself on today.  Both Samantha and I were so worried that no one would come that night because of gas shortages, power outages and communications blackouts caused by Super Storm Sandy.  We were “lucky” to even find a funeral home that was open, much less get word out that a memorial was being held.  We thought we would be alone that night.  We were wrong.

I remember being overwhelmed by the sheer number of people who made their way out to to support my wife Samantha and I in our most desperate time.  So many people showed up that the police needed to direct traffic outside the funeral home and we had to extend the visiting time to accommodate the throng of people who filled the funeral home to capacity and wrapped around the outside, waiting to get in.

Little did I know, but that night was the beginning of the ReesSpecht Life Foundation and the Cultivate Kindness movement.  As that evening wore on, my close friend Jim asked me if I wanted to say something to everyone.  At first I declined, but he encouraged me to say a few words, explaining that those words would mean a lot to the people who were there and perhaps be healing for myself as well.  After a small deliberation, I finally agreed and I spoke to everyone there…

The words that came out of my mouth were unexpected by everyone in the funeral home, including myself.  While I thanked everyone there, I didn’t really talk about Rees or myself and my family.  Instead, I talked about the people who were there to support us; helping to lift Samantha and I up in our time of despair.  As I stood there, looking at all these different people, something struck me.  I realized that these were the very same friends and relatives who were, just several days prior, arguing and complaining about (and to) each other about the 2012 Presidential election.  I was instantly drawn to the contrast I was witnessing of the disparate group of people all coming together for something they all agreed in: Helping someone in need.  Being there to raise a family from the depths of despair.  Showing kindness in the wake of the worst thing that can happen to a parent.

I asked everyone there a simple question: “Why are you here?” – which I answered immediately, “To raise Samantha and I up.  To be a positive to counter this great negative that has befallen us.”.  I then asked the next question that came to my mind. It’s the question that started our whole movement: “Why is it we wait until something tragic has happened to use this power we have to lift others up?”  That one question then lead to several more…  “Why do wait until something is negative to use the power of positivity to return it to neutral?  Imagine if we used this power everyday?  A positive charge applied to a neutral system makes the whole system positive.”  I will never forget the look on everybody’s faces:  A look of acknowledgement and understanding.  I ended my brief talk with a simple request to “start to do the little positive things that help make this world a better place for us all.”

That brief talk, which I thought was a fitting ending to what I witnessed that night turned out to be the very seed that started our movement. Brian, a colleague of mine from work, sought me out at the end of the night to tell me that my words reverberated within in him.  He pointed out that what I was talking about was the essence of respect for each other and that he couldn’t shake the connection with our little boy’s nickname, “Rees” and his last name, Specht.  “ReesSpecht Life”, Brian he suggested softly.  “You should start a foundation using his name and promoting the very idea you shared tonight.”

The moment Brian said that a light started to flicker in the darkness of the void Rees’ passing had created.  Over the next few weeks that light would continue to grow brighter as I started to share my writings on Facebook.  I started a Facebook page called “ReesSpecht Life” and we counted a couple hundred followers who encouraged me to share more about the stories of kindness we received in the wake of Rees’ passing.  For the next couple of months I continued to write and share those stories, but it started to feel like something was missing.  We wanted to do more to pay back the kindness we had received, except no one would let us pay them back.

We had experienced so many wonderful acts of kindness from the kindest people I have ever known.  There were so many acts of kindness for me to share, like Bill Kelly from Kelly Brother’s landscaping completely restoring my yard from the damage Sandy wrought and removing the pond Rees drowned in.  He wouldn’t take anything in return.  My cousin Peter waiting in a gas-line for hours to get us gas for our generator.  My colleague Michelle who organized and gathered together some boys in our community to deliver and stack wood for us to use to heat our home.  Friends, family and co-workers who made us so many meals that we literally didn’t have to cook for almost six months.  All this kindness, and no one would let us pay them back.

Front and back of our orignal "Pay it Forward" cards.

Front and back of our orignal “Pay it Forward” cards.

Since no one would let us pay them back we decided to print up our kindness cards so that we could “pay it forward”.  Our goal was to perform 500 random acts of kindness and leave the card emblazoned with Rees’ image and name behind for each one of those acts.  The cards were part of my promise to my little boy that, in some small way, the world would get to know him through these acts of kindness in his name.  Little did I know at the time but our very first act of kindness, using one of the cards at a local Dunkin Donuts Drive-thru, started a chain reaction that continues to grow until this day.

The world does know his name...

The world does know his name…

As I write this, over 390,000 of our cards have been distributed, worldwide.  In only three and half years our Facebook page went from a couple hundred, local, followers to over 70,000 world-wide today.  We have distributed over 10,000 copies of our children’s book.  I’ve had the honor of speaking to over 30,000 students about the power of kindness.  I’ll admit, as things continued to grow, I really felt like I was honoring that promise to my little boy and making good on my words to add a little positivity to the world.  I really thought we were moving forward, until I found myself back where it all started…

Today my Facebook feed and everyday conversations seemed filled with the same vitriol and blaming it was four years ago. I see people openly disparaging others because they don’t share the same views. Here we are again, focusing on that which divides us.  Focusing on the negative and placing the blame on others.  I see people emboldened to “tell it like it is” and put other’s down because they are “different”.  I watch in horror as people look outward for someone else to “fix” all our problems.  The fingers of blame seem to be pointed everywhere.

Four years ago I thought I stumbled upon a solution to this very problem that made sense.  You cannot lend a helping hand when that hand is already pointing the finger of blame at someone else.  I really believed that as people saw what one little idea, one tiny little seed of kindness, could do they would recognize that the power to make this world a better place does not lie in the words and promises of one person…  I truly thought they would come to understand that we each play a role in making a change, and that collectively we can make a difference.  For once, I thought time was on my side – proving that we could make a real change in only short amount of it.   The scientist in me thought that the proof was in the incredible numbers of acts of kindness performed in the name of one little boy.

And it is.  The proof is actually there.  It was right in front of my face the whole time.  I realize the mistake I was making is the same mistake we all make when considering distance and time.  We think that as we move forward we do so in a straight line.  The reality is that there are imperceptible forces acting on either side of that forward movement.  Those forces are the choices we make between positive and negative – good and bad.  As we think we are moving forward our good choices pull us slightly to one side, while our bad choices pull us in the opposite direction.  If the good equals the bad, then the net motion is in a straight line, but not in the direction you were originally headed.  In mathematics this is known as a vector.  However, if one force is greater than the other, the line begins to arc.  That arc, if allowed to continually propagate, forms a circle…

That circle has us right back where we started four years ago.  At a quick glance, it would appear that we accomplished nothing.  Nothing has changed. Here we are, right back where we started.  People are pointing fingers, insulting each other and focusing on the negative. The circle has closed itself, ready to start the cycle anew.  I guess we failed then.  Right?  Wrong.  The truth is something that I need to remind myself of often.  The truth is that all of our efforts are a part of what helped make this journey a circle and not a vector headed in the absolute opposite direction.

As humans we tend to focus on the beginnings and endings of journeys but rarely consider the path that took us there.  I can lament the fact that in many ways, we are right back at the point we started four years ago, but that would be dismissing the journey itself and our effect on its path.  Therein lies the proof of everything we have espoused since day one… that change is made, not in great strokes by one person, but rather through the collective actions of many working in unison.  If we want to change the world, we cannot look at it as failure when our efforts find us back at the starting point.  We have to understand the role we took in ensuring we made it back to that point in the first place!  We need to recognize our actions kept us from falling off the precipice and put us back into the position to try to straighten the circle this time around.

So it is here that I find myself four years out from the moment that changed the trajectory of my life forever.  Time, my ceaseless (and often unwanted) companion, is still here by my side.  I can sit here and lament that, at a quick glance, nothing has changed in those 126,230,400 seconds… That I am back right where I started.  Sure, I could do that.  In fact, most people do and they certainly wouldn’t fault me for it.  The problem with that is by doing so, I ignore the journey and the effect that journey had on getting us back to this point.  The path to success never looks the way we think it should.  I made a promise to my little boy four years ago that his legacy was going to help make a difference in this world.  As long as time remains by my side, I am never going to stop trying to fulfill that promise.  Never let anyone tell you that you don’t matter.  We are, each of us, a difference maker.  390,000 kindness cards and we are still here, ready to make even more of a difference, one little Rees’ piece at a time…

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headshot squareRICH SPECHT is a father of four who holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Mary Washington and a master’s degree in liberal studies from Stony Brook University.  Prior to embarking on his career as a public speaker and advocate for kindness, Rich was a science teacher for 15 years at Great Hollow Middle School, in Nesconset, New York.  In addition to his speaking, Rich is also the published author of the award winning children’s book  A Little Rees Specht Cultivates Kindness.  Rich and his wife, Samantha, are the co-founders of the ReesSpecht Life Foundation which they formed in the wake of the loss of their only son, Richard Edwin-Ehmer (Rees) Specht at 22 months old.  The acts of kindness that the family received after Rees’ passing inspired them to “pay forward” that kindness; which the foundation does in the form of scholarships for High School seniors who demonstrate a commitment to their community, compassion and respect, as well as the distribution of almost four hundred thousand ReesSpecht Life “pay it forward” cards.  The themes and characters from Rich’s book(s) are currently slated to become an animated children’s television series produced by Safier Entertainment.  The book and television adaptations of A Little Rees Specht Cultivates Kindness represents the culmination of Rich’s goal to help make this world a little better, one Rees’ piece at a time.  Rich currently resides in Sound Beach, New York with his wife, Samantha, daughters, Abigail, Lorilei and Melina as well as his angel above, Rees.