Long Island Now

Sound Beach man’s Starbucks kindness honors late son

On Pay it Forward Day, April 24, 2014,

As soon as Starbucks at the Stony Brook University Medical Center opened at 6:30 a.m., Rich Specht handed employees $500 in Starbucks gift cards to give out to customers.

Thursday was international Pay It Forward Day, the perfect day to spread some kindness.

Specht, whose Sound Beach family lost their 22-month-old son Richie — nicknamed Rees — on Oct. 27, 2012 after he drowned in a pond in his backyard, has been spreading acts of kindness in his son’s name.

Specht gave the employees 100 $5 Starbucks gift cards along with business-size cards with information about his son and his family’s mission to pay it forward, in hopes that they too pass along the kindness.

“We decided to have it here because this is where Rees was born,” said Specht, 39, an eighth-grade science teacher at Great Hollow Middle School in Nesconset for 14 years. “When you lose someone you love, you need a way to remember them. I love the idea of people doing small acts of kindness in honor of my son. It puts a smile on my face.”

Before learning the reason, there were some skeptics. Some customers just didn’t understand why someone would give them a free $5 gift card. Others were flabbergasted, yet pleasantly surprised.

Lloyd Bragg, a registered nurse and database administrator in the cardiology department, received a gift card. Bragg, who sipped his iced green tea, has work in pediatrics for 20 years, so he’s seen the effect losing a child can have on families.

“It’s pretty great they’re doing this for us,” said Bragg, 54, of Hauppauge. “Something like this has never happened to me. And they’re taking something so tragic as losing a child and turning it around and doing nice things for others. It’s a wonderful idea.”

Another customer, Diane Biondo, who was just in quick to grab some coffee after her daughter delivered a baby boy earlier that morning, was also randomly selected to be given a gift card.

“I teach elementary students and I believe that core values like respect and kindness need to be taught at a young age,” said Biondo, of Middle Village. “We forget to help each other. When someone is taken away so early in life it takes great strength to pick yourself back up again. What this family is doing is incredibly brave and noble.”

Soon after Rees’ death, his family created a Facebook page called “ReesSpechtLife,” and later formed a foundation committed to making the world a better place by asking the community to do random acts of kindness in his son’s name.

The family continues with its mission two years later. Specht just penned a children’s book, “A Little Rees Specht Cultivates Kindness,” to be available on Amazon May 6. And on June 6, Smithtown High School West is hosting a concert to benefit the Richard Edwin-Ehmer Specht Memorial Scholarship, which awards $1,000 scholarships to Smithtown East and West high school students.

“With the loss of a child one of two things happen,” Specht said. “The loss brings you down and wrecks your life or you transcend the loss and you do something positive with your grief. My next goal is to make Rees’ birthday on Dec. 19 National Kindness Day.”

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I am at a place now where I can mostly remember the happy times with Rees and smile in remembrance of him.  My morning routine of looking at his collage of pictures is met with less sadness and more smiles on a daily basis.  I can talk about Rees, openly, and fondly with others without tears welling up in my eyes anymore.  I smile thinking back to day he was born, and the utter joy I felt knowing I had a little boy to share the Father and Son relationship with.  The sadness I used to feel at the realization I will never have that with him is not as acute anymore.  The kindness that I hear about people performing in his name conjures images of him smiling above me and it puts me at ease.  I mostly now smile when thinking of him, a welcome change from the flood of tears his image in my mind used to elicit.  For the most part, my memories of him now bring forth comfort to me; save for one memory I would trade anything to rid my mind of, but seemingly cannot and never will.  That particular memory still has the same effect on me now as it did the day after he died, with the only difference being the diminishing frequency with which I see it.

I wish I could properly explain the feeling that I have when I see him in that place…  There exists no word in the English language that really fits.  The feeling begins in the back of my throat and radiates up to my brain and down to my stomach while at the same time pushing forward, almost like what would be a scream, only to escape my contorted mouth inaudible – save for a slight moan.  The pain hits the back of my eyes with such force it feels like it is going to flash outwards, like a gamma burst, that only my conscious squinting can stop from propagating.  My ears ring, my fists clench and my stomach tightens.  I feel my soul tremble, and I shake my head in a vain effort to erase the thought like a child erasing an etch-a-sketch drawing.  Then the sadness hits.  The realization he is gone, and never coming back, brings on an intense sorrow that places a pallor on everything I am and all that I love.  It is in these moments that I find the only thing that can lift the veil of sadness is my family: namely my wife and two beautiful daughters.  They lift me up, and restore me.  Their presence is a beacon that lights the darkness, welcoming me to the safe shores of their love.  They are my light, my life, my hopes and my dreams.

I am safe with my family, and there is no other place I would ever rather be than with them.  I know the feeling is reciprocated by them.  Since our loss is a shared one, we all find peace and safety with each other and I know it is just as comforting for them to know I feel their pain as it is for me;  knowing they share mine.  In the wake of losing Rees, we were all there for each other, helping put the pieces of our lives back together as best we can and soldiering on with life, trying to make the best of it within the constraints of our “new normal.”  There is a strange comfort in knowing that you don’t carry the burden of the loss alone and in many ways, it is something that binds us and ties us all together.  My whole family shares this burden because fate placed it upon us and we have no choice but to do so.  All of us that is except one:  Rees’ newest piece, the baby my wife is carrying inside of her right now…

8 weeks ago Samantha and I found out she was pregnant.  Almost immediately, the conditions of my “new normal” were apparent:  what should have been a joyous moment for me became one of immediate concern and worry.  What if she miscarries?  What if the baby has a defect?  What if there is a life threatening complication for Samantha?  What if the baby is has a knot in its umbilical cord and its wrapped around its neck, just like what happened with Rees, but this time fate does not spare him/her like it did Rees.  What if, what if, what if??  I never used to play the “what if” game before Rees died.  I always took things as they were and just expected life to work itself out.  Losing Rees made me realize that there are so many factors out of our control and it added a new dimension of fear to my life.

It is bad enough that I worry about my daughters more than ever now.  The news that Sam was pregnant instantly added another worry to my list… What if I lose this baby, just like I lost my little boy?  Can I handle that loss again?  I don’t think so.  Well, if there are things out of my control, I cannot guarantee that something bad does not happen.  For the past eight weeks I find that I am constantly playing down the moments that should elicit joy with concerns about what could go wrong.  In many ways I feel that this baby marks a chance for me to start another chapter in my life that I thought had closed forever with the loss of Rees, but the fear of this chapter ending the same way scares the hell out of me.

I am not used to being afraid.  I used to not really fear anything, save for spiders and lighting (but that is a whole different blog entry!).  Now I find myself fearing the things that, maybe, I should have feared all along. I miss the carefree Rich who felt that things would just work out for the best.  Worry, doubt, and fear are words I wish I could expunge from the lexicon of my life.  But today, when Sam sent me the pictures from her 13 week sonogram, I realized something important:  those three words did not replace my previous self’s lexicon, they were merely added to it.  The worry I felt leading up to this sonogram today was merely part of the new perspective I have in the wake of losing Rees.

When I saw those pictures today I gleamed a million megawatt smile that just filled me with pure joy.  Everything was where it was supposed to be.  Heartbeat? A perfect 146.  Two arms, two legs, perfect sized head and neck, etc.  After seeing that picture today I realized that my worry allowed for a greater happiness by comparison than I ever had seeing a sonogram of one of my children before.  Maybe I just needed to see it for myself.  I needed proof that things can go right too.  Life has so many ups and downs, and I used to think that I could just ignore the downs, and focus on the ups.  I now realize that by trying to ignore the bad times, I lost the very metric I needed to measure just how good the “ups” can be.  With the loss of Rees of my standard of comparison, life really has only one way to go now: up.

It is with this renewed optimism that I sit here tonight able to bask in the joy of new life.  While I know there are some images that I will never be able to purge from my mind, I know the birth of our baby will give me another ray of light to fight off that darkness.  The baby will have a perspective in our family that is totally unique: one forged not in the loss of Rees, but in the fact that they never will have had the chance to meet him.  I realize that this will present a set of challenges in its own right.  Regardless,  Rees will always be a part of our lives, and he will be for the baby too.  Baby may never get to meet  big brother Rees, but that doesn’t mean he/she will not get to know him.   I look forward to reading “A Little Rees Specht Cultivates Kindness” to my future son/daughter so that they can get to know their big brother.  In knowing Rees, even in a small way, they will share a piece of something that ties our family together and keep a part of his spirit alive.  The baby is going to forge his/her own way into the world – and hopefully that world they are joining is just a little kinder than the one their big brother left.  With new life, comes new hope in a world renewed.  Tonight I am not sad, because thanks to you, I know the world our new baby will grow up in is growing ever kinder, one Rees’ piece at a time…     photo 1 photo 2