I feel that we are at a crossroads… On one hand I love what we are trying to do, and knowing that I am doing it to honor my little boy lights a fire inside me that vanquishes the darkness his death imposed upon us. On the other hand, trying to accomplish our goal of spreading kindness is a tremendous struggle and a second full time job that I am not sure I have the will to continue doing. Many people warned me that running a foundation is an incredible time constraint and that it takes a toll. These same people recommended that we perhaps look to another foundation to help with our cause and save ourselves from the inevitable time crunch running something like this would entail. I thanked them all for their advice and pushed ahead anyhow, armed with a sense of purpose that made me throw all caution to the wind. Well, the wind is blowing back.
Running a non-profit is a constant struggle to try and makes ends meet. You can’t just put your hand out and hope that the money needed to run the organization appears magically. Regardless of the dynamics that started your cause, people expect something in return for the money they spend.
Providing something of intrinsic value for people is a difficult thing to do for any business, but I believe it is magnified exponentially for a non-profit. Businesses are built on the basis that you spend a little money to get more money than you spent by offering something novel that people want or need. A non-profit generally does not have this advantage. A group dependent on donations is usually offering something that people are willing to give away. People don’t often part with things they highly value or are unique, so it is rare that a non-profit can offer anything novel or of great value.
In order to overcome this obstacle, most non-profits host fundraisers several times a year. Fundraisers are often built around something that you can do in other venues, but the catch is that by participating in the fundraising event you know that what you are doing is helping a cause you believe in. Most non-profits make their money through several of these events throughout the year. To date we have done four such fundraisers: 1) Our first fundraiser at a local bar which included raffles and give away’s. 2) The “Man of Steel” movie fundraiser in which we rented an entire theater for a private screening of the new Superman Movie. 3) The 5k this past fall which was actually run by the Nesconset Chamber of commerce. 4) The Islanders game fundraiser. All four of these fundraisers were a success. They took a lot of time to organize, but they were all well worth the money and effort and helped supply funding for the printing of our “Pay it Forward” cards and scholarships. I could not be happier with our “event level” fundraising.
That brings me to the other part of the equation: Novelty. From the begining of this process I wanted to offer something unique to people that would promote our goal and help us raise funds in the process. The first step was setting up a web shop where people could get t-shirts, hats, mugs etc. At first those sold very well, but then they died down. I didn’t think much of it as I always figured there would be an ebb and flow to those sales. We then offered car magnets, which I thought would be a big hit, that turned out not to be. But perhaps the single biggest thing we did, something that took my heart and soul and put it out there for all to see, was the children’s book I wrote:
The idea for “A Little Rees Specht Cultivates Kindness” came to me while I was teaching. I remember I was in the middle of a lesson on the reproduction of plants and was describing the process of seed dispersal and germination with my students. We then got off topic a bit (something my students will attest that I tend to do) and I started talking about how humans have taken advantage of this process in modern agriculture. I started talking about the giant machines (tractors) that prepare the soil and spread the seeds. The point I ended up making was that no matter how much technology we use, the end result still requires the farmers dedication, effort and care to ensure the cultivation of the best harvest he can reap. I then told them this is the case for everything we do in our lives, that we can’t just rely on technology to do everything – that the human component has to be there to cultivate the things we want. It was at that moment that I thought to myself that this applies to kindness as well: Kindness needs to be cultivated just like a seed, and when we do it spreads and grows. It was a eureka moment. I felt like I had the perfect idea for a story that would tie Rees’ love of tractors with the movement that we started in his name.
Over the next few months I wrote the story and descriptions of the pictures that would be on every page. I had very specific images in my head of what I wanted and I struggled with trying to convey those images in written descriptions. Towards the end of this past summer, my story was complete and I was ready to move on to the next step: finding someone who could take my words and create the illustrations. There was only one person I would ever think of doing it – my childhood friend and gifted artist, Adam Smith. Adam was the artist who developed our original logo of Rees as Superman and the Super “R”.
I met with Adam at his daughter’s soccer practice and described my vision to him. I explained to him how each child character in the book was a real angel whose story I was made aware of in the course of sharing Rees’ story. I shared pictures of the real life counterparts to Kaylee, Gavin, Kieran and Jessie. I told him that this book meant everything to me and that the thrust of the foundation was going to move towards making the book the centerpiece of our effort to try and cultivate kindness and compassion in everyone who is touched by Rees’ story. I asked him to develop a new logo for the foundation and that we would release the new logo on the anniversary of his passing and announce our book. I also told Adam that we would not allow him to do this for free and that we would compensate him fair market value for his work.
As work progressed on the book I could not believe how Adam was able to take my words and literally turn them into the pictures I had envisioned in my mind. It was as if he had some paranormal link to view the images in my brain. My heart swelled with joy with each new page I saw come to life. In a very real way, the images I saw gave a new life to Rees and the other Angels in the story and it gave me a sense of comfort knowing their stories and spirits were going to go on, even though their corporeal forms were no longer among us. The book was a piece of my heart and I hoped with all of it that people would love it as much as I did.
The first people to love the book, outside of my family, were our original publishers, 1st Ride Enterprises. 1st Ride publishers also published my college roomate, and great friend Rob Edwards (If you like Nicholas Sparks, you will love his work HERE). After seeing only the rough draft, they immediately signed on to help us and felt our reach on in our community and on Facebook would ensure it would be a tremendous success. I felt exactly the same way, so we signed on, ready to take on the world. Everything seemed to be moving in the right direction and Samantha and I were so excited about sharing the book with rest of the world. Then, around the time of our Islanders fundraiser, some concerns started to creep up…
Our publishers came up with the idea of a charity campaign in which Author Matt Galeone would donate a portion of his profits to the ReesSpecht Life foundation for every book sold. We figured it would be a win/win for everyone involved so we posted it on facebook right away. It basically got no response. We literally sold 6 books (2 copies of the trilogy). 36,000 facebook followers and we couldn’t sell more than 6 books. I took that personally. I apologized to them, explaining that our demographics were not exactly in line with the book’s demographics and that must have been the reason.
Regardless of how I tried to present it, the charity campaign really did not take off (though it is still active if you wish to buy a copy HERE). What became more troubling was any post I made about our book was not receiving nearly the click through rate or likes of my other posts on Facebook. A typical post about our book would generate maybe 100 click throughs and 30 likes, yet pictures of puppies with cute (and true!) sayings about kindness would generate 500 click throughs and 1000 or more likes. I again brushed it off as people just waiting for the real thing to arrive.
May 7th was supposed to be the date of our original book publishing. Up until 2 weeks ago that date was set in stone – and then the wheels fell off. On the same Friday that the Newsday article about our Pay it Forward day Starbucks gift card distribution was printed I received an email: 1st Ride could not print the book in the dimensions that we designed the book. We scrambled over the next few days to find a solution, and none that involved 1st Ride as our publishers could be found. I spoke with the owner, who expressed his disappointment about the situation. In addition to his disappointment, he also said something that is still gnawing at me today: “After seeing the response to our charity campaign [and other things like the response to our book and other fundraisers] we altered our projections for your book.” Very bluntly, they didn’t believe that our Facebook followers really meant much at all, and that our reach was grossly overestimated. Suddenly, we were left with a book with no way to get it out to the public and the feeling that we made a huge mistake in judging our market.
With each passing day my own sense of doubt seems to reinforce the view that I completely miscalculated our reach and impact. I cannot describe the feeling I have. I put everything into this book and, by proxy, the foundation. I am a logical person and the logician in me says that any book sold, or card distributed, or scholarship awarded is a success. Furthermore, each success is a positive, countering the negative of the loss of Rees.
My left brain used to be the dominant side of my thinking. That has changed with Rees’ passing. Now my emotions are all over the place. I can be “up” one minute and then, without any reason, I find myself crashing; despair and hopelessness overwhelming me. My logical side tries to cushion the descent, but sometimes the fall happens so fast that I reach terminal velocity; completely eliminating the effectiveness of any effort to slow it. That is where I find myself right now. I can’t shake the feeling that the book is failure. I wish I could see it another way. I know that by nature, I am incredibly impatient, but I do not feel this is a manifestation of that. My left and right brain are simpatico in this case. Lack of response, coupled with my fragile emotions has placed me a really low state.
It’s almost as if I am losing Rees all over again. No one loved Richie more than my wife and I – and no one could love this book more as well. Since the book is intrinsically related to everything involved with the foundation and relation to Rees, I cannot help this feeling. I had no control over losing Rees and I cannot go back and change that. The book is a different story. In regards to the book, I have some control in this case, and yet despite all of my effort, it too appears to be drowning in a sea of apathy. It is almost as if this book represents, at least in my mind, a figurative way to save him and my perceived failure here is a repeat of my inability to breathe life back into his tiny body. I feel like I am failing him all over again. I. Hate. Failing. I failed my little boy once and it cost me nearly everything. I feel like I am losing control of the one thing I invested what was left of my heart and soul into…
Now, I realize that there things that are out of our control which we cannot hope to change. Conversely, there are things that are within our control that we can. There are still people who laugh at me for thinking we can make this world a little kinder. I feel sorry for them, I really do. My goodness, how much has life beaten someone down that they no longer have even the hope that we can make a difference? I have never faltered in my belief that what we are doing is making a difference. Where it appears I did falter was in my estimation of just how much support we really do have. I mistook “Likes” on facebook for support. I failed to recognize that those likes are fleeting and most people who “Like” us are really just saying “This is nice, good luck!”. Likes do not equal support. Our real support is in the 57,500 “Pay it Forward” cards that are out there. Our real support is in the friends and complete strangers who volunteered to help us put our fundraisers together and organize our toy drive. Our real support is in the hundreds of people who consistently comment on our posts and activities. That number is a lot less than 36,673. I’ve been putting too much time into spreading us out on facebook, when all I need to do is look around at the people right next to me who are making other’s smile with a kind deed and a card with a little boy on his tractor on it. My wife, Samantha, told me that the book will “catch on when people have it in their hands and feel the same thing you and I do when reading it.” She is right. I was so caught up in catching lighting in the bottle, I forgot all about the spark that started the whole thing.
In reality, the book is already a success. It may never ever make the money I invested into it back, but it will always be here. I have visions of my daughters and baby Specht reading this story to their children and telling them all about their “Uncle Rees”. I see them learning the lessons of kindness and growing, like a seed, with a cultivating love that will span generations in my family. We may have only sold 25 copies of the book, but I know 3 of those copies will get passed, with great reverence, for generations to come. Who knows? Maybe someday I will look back on this writing and wonder how I could have ever doubted that people would find the book as something other than truly special… Or, I may see that this was a prognostication that was spot on. Regardless, I know that the story is something my family will cherish and it that way my future grandchildren will never have to face losing Rees Specht: They will find him.