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Scarlett Lewis created the Choose Love Movement in honor of her son Jesse, who died at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012. The Hearts on Fire benefit concert will be held in Danbury on June 30, Jesse’s birthday.

We can’t always choose what happens to us, but we can always choose how to respond. That’s the cornerstone of the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement. Jesse was 6 when he was murdered in his first-grade classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012. His mother Scarlett has made it her life’s mission to educate people, children in particular, on how to choose love. It’s a remarkable response to a senseless tragedy.

The Choose Love Enrichment Program is a no-cost, next-generation social and emotional learning program that teaches individuals how to have healthy relationships, how to manage emotions, and how to be resilient in the face of challenges. “These are skills and tools that we have to be taught. We’re not born with them,” Lewis says of the program, which can be used for both school and home and can be downloaded from the organization’s website. “I don’t think that I had the knowledge to be able to give Jesse these skills and tools. I did the best that I could as a parent, but I’ve learned so much more through creating this program. I would have done a much better job today because I know more.”

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Jesse Lewis

While Lewis created the program, she says decades of research have gone into its core principles. “The reason that I gravitated toward this work was because I knew that what happened to Jesse, his murder and the rest of the kids, was 100 percent preventable,” Lewis says. “I quit my job that I had before the tragedy and I decided to dedicate my life to being part of the solution to the issues that led up to that murder.”

According to Lewis, this solution — social and emotional learning — addresses the cause of not only violence and bullying, but also substance abuse, mental illness and incarceration. Lewis says that even divorce rates later in life can be tied to social and emotional learning. In just its third year of existence, the program is being used in every U.S. state and more than 70 countries.

To get to a point where she would be able to do this work, Lewis says forgiveness was the most important stage to go through. She had to take her personal power back. “Finding out about the perpetrator’s life, I realized that he really did everything he was supposed to do as a young boy,” Lewis says. “He had special needs that weren’t necessarily met. He had cried out for help. He’d written a book when he was in fifth grade called The Book of Granny, about a witch coming to the school with a broomstick that opened into a semi-automatic weapon. He talked about murdering children. That was a cry for help.”

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The Hearts on Fire benefit concert will be held in Danbury on June 30, Jesse Lewis' birthday.

Because this can be a matter of life or death, like it was for her son, Lewis has made all of the program’s resources available at no cost. That’s where the Hearts on Fire benefit concert comes into play. After holding a smaller event in Darien last year, Danbury’s Ives Concert Park will be the site and June 30, the day Jesse would have become a teenager, is the date. John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band will headline a day of music, food trucks and fun.

“Having a lot of fun was Jesse’s last message to his big brother,” Lewis says. “J.T. found a little note in his room that was all folded up and it said ‘have a lot of fun.’ So that’s one of our main tenets in the program. And that’s definitely what we’re planning on doing on June 30.”

The Hearts on Fire benefit concert is scheduled for 3 p.m. on June 30 at Ives Concert Park in Danbury. Tickets: $5-$75. jesselewischooselove.org

This article appeared in the June 2019 issue of Connecticut Magazine. You can subscribe here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter here to get the latest and greatest content from Connecticut Magazine delivered right to your inbox. Got a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com, or contact us on Facebook @connecticutmagazine or Twitter @connecticutmag.

Mike Wollschlager, editor and writer for Connecticut Magazine, was born and raised in Bristol and has lived in Farmington, Milford, Shelton and Wallingford. He was previously an assistant sports editor at the New Haven Register.