Nine years ago this month, Scarlett Lewis experienced the unthinkable for a parent. Her 6-year-old son Jesse was murdered in the Dec. 14, 2012, Sandy Hook school shooting. Jesse, who had saved the lives of nine classmates when he yelled “run” after the shooter’s gun jammed, left a message for his mother on the chalkboard at home in the kitchen. It said, “Nurturing Healing Love.” Inspired by those words, Lewis created the nonprofit Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement, a nonprofit whose mission is to create safer and more loving communities through no-cost Character Social Emotional Development programs. Based on the Choose Love formula (Courage + Gratitude + Forgiveness + Compassion-in-Action = Choosing Love), its programs have reached more than 2 million in all 50 states and more than 100 countries. In a new book, From Sandy Hook to the World: How the Choose Love Movement Transforms Lives, Lewis chronicles her quest to make the world a safer, more peaceful, more loving place.
Do you feel differently about Jesse’s murder after nine years?
I think about it the exact same way I did on day one. It was 100 percent preventable. Standing back and blaming, and finger-pointing and faultfinding, is not going to move us toward a solution any faster. And we need to get there faster. School shootings are the normal now, they’re part of our culture.
Your response to the tragedy must have surprised people.
I got up at Jesse’s funeral and said, “This is something you can do: Start thinking about what you think. This all started with an angry thought in Adam Lanza’s head.” I quit my job and started researching what a solution might be. I looked at what we’re doing in school with anti-bullying and substance abuse, as well as academics, and thought, “That’s not working.” Instead of focusing on the problems, I decided to start focusing on the cause of the problems.
Others won’t even say Adam Lanza’s name.
I’ve gotten a lot of attention for choosing to forgive Adam Lanza, but it’s been the greatest gift of freedom for myself. … When we do that, we’ve chosen love. The whole point is to be able to have hope. We need hope right now, and the way we do that is to have some sense we have control. Choosing love returns the locus of control to within us. And when it’s inside of us we feel hopeful. We make things happen. That’s really what we’re teaching these kids and adults.
How did your personal catharsis become a movement?
It started with Jesse’s message: Nurturing Healing Love. I realized that if Adam Lanza had been able to give and receive nurturing love, the tragedy would never have happened. I tried to figure out how to get that message into our schools. I came across mindfulness, and social emotional intelligence, and other solutions we know from science and research are a direct path to flourishing in our lives. Mindfulness and social emotional intelligence were being taught, but in separate programs, and teachers — our “superheroes” — couldn’t find time to do it all. So we created a program that didn’t need training because the educator learns right alongside the child.
And the programs have expanded far beyond schools, correct?
Yes. Trauma in schools is coming from home, so we created a program for parents. When we were launching that we heard a lot of interest from community members, police chiefs, etc., so we created a community program. We have an RV now and we recently embarked on the first “Choose Love on the Move” bus tour of New Hampshire. We’re planning experiential events across the country, bringing the message to the people in person so they can experience it, practice it and realize how they can benefit from it to make the world they want.
What about Choose Love in prisons?
I personally have been to several prisons in different states and different countries spreading the message. Right now the program is taught in the Hawaii prison system, the Connecticut prison system, as well as New Hampshire. In fact, New Hampshire got a grant to modify the program to specifically teach it in prison, and one of the stops on the RV tour was a prison.
Tell us about the new book.
This really talks about how the movement was started, why, what the benefits have been to all age groups, and the most beautiful part of it is you actually hear from the people who’ve actually been touched by it — people from all walks of life, prisoners, school superintendents, parents, even the governor of New Hampshire weighs in. There’s a chapter devoted to Connecticut, including stories from U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, educators, a principal and others.
You talk about PTG as the other side of the PTSD coin. What do you mean?
Everyone has heard of PTSD — post-traumatic stress disorder. We focus on post-traumatic growth (PTG). We want to empower kids to understand that you may go through difficult times in your life, but those are opportunities for growth and you can empower other people. I really think that’s why we’re here on Earth and that’s what I try to do.
And somehow you have the strength to apply those principles to Adam Lanza?
I feel compassion for him. He was let down. He didn’t have the skills and tools he needed to take that pain and turn it into opportunity for growth. I do this as much for the Jesses of the world as I do it for the Adam Lanzas of the world.