This Friday, June 30, would have been the 11th birthday of Jesse Lewis, who died in the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. His mom, Scarlett Lewis, told TODAY Parents that his family plans to celebrate the day at his grave, where they will have cake and write messages to him on balloons that they will release into the sky.
Later, they will light candles with friends, and there will be champagne for the adults. "We try to celebrate his life instead of being sad," Lewis said. That's true year-round for Lewis: in her son's name, his mother has devoted herself to spreading love and forgiveness — even for Jesse's murderer.
Jesse died in his first grade classroom in 2012 when 20-year-old Adam Lanza broke into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and fatally shot 20 children and six adults. When Lewis returned home after the tragedy with her older son, JT, now 17, she found words scrawled on her kitchen chalkboard from Jesse: "Nurturing, healing love."
Lewis decided Jesse's message was the key to preventing mass shootings like the one that claimed his life. "I knew then that I needed to spend the rest of my life spreading this message in schools. I believe that if the shooter had been able to give and receive nurturing, healing love, the tragedy never would have happened," she told the blog for GoFundMe, which recently named her a "GoFundMe Hero" for the month of June.
In 2016, Lewis created the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement to do just that. With the help of scientific researchers and educators, the organization teaches social and emotional learning skills — such as forgiveness, gratitude, bravery, and compassion — that Lewis said can change the dynamics of a classroom and could have prevented Adam Lanza's actions at Sandy Hook in 2012.
"If this program had existed when Adam Lanza was a young child, it would have saved my son's life and it would have saved Adam Lanza's life," Lewis told TODAY Parents.
Lewis said she has forgiven Lanza because as a young child, Lanza "did everything he was supposed to do," she said.
"Adam Lanza was not born a mass murderer," Lewis said. "There were signs all along the way that he needed help. He acted oddly, he wrote and said odd things — that was his child's way of crying out for help. He wasn't given the kindness, caring, and concern that he needed."
Lewis pointed out that when Lanza was in elementary school, his mother "sent him to school with a backpack full of invites to his birthday party." No one went to his party.
"Little things like that, they add up," Lewis said. "When the unimaginable happens, you start to feel compassion. I can kind of understand where his anger came from. He did what he was supposed to do and it was up to us to help him. He was just a kid."
The Choose Love Movement's online program is free and involves no training and no prep for schools. It was designed by educators for their peers based on what they wanted to see in their own classrooms.
"The program teaches 21st-century life skills," Lewis explained to TODAY Parents. "It teaches children how to understand and manage emotions, decision-making skills, and awareness of themselves and others. It teaches how to be a compassionate person. These skills are not innate; they have to be learned. And when kids have these skills, they do better on grades and test scores, but this is also the number-one proactive mental health initiative we have."
One of the concepts the program teaches to children is how to forgive. "It tells them that anger is fine — we don't judge any emotion — but prolonged anger is not good for us mentally, physically, or emotionally. The program teaches children how to 'cut the cord' that is connecting them to pain and to let it go," Lewis said. "And forgiveness is the key to resilience."
Since it was launched, the Choose Love Movement's program has been downloaded in 44 states and in 13 countries, and feedback from the teachers who have used it has been unanimous in asserting that it has resulted in better classroom and school climates and has reduced behavioral issues in their students.
Lewis has dedicated her life to trying to prevent more acts of violence like the one that took her son's. "This is 100 percent preventable, yet it continues to happen," she said. "There have been over 220 school-related shootings since Sandy Hook."
The Choose Love Movement's social and emotional learning program is the answer to keeping children safe, Lewis said, and the key now is getting it into every school. "This is the number one way to ensure that your children's school has a safe environment," she said.
"We all have to be responsible for what's happening to our children, and we can all be a part of something that changes the world. If it was just a legislative or political issue, they would have fixed it by now. They can't fix it. We have to fix it. We can do this."
Click here for more information about the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement and how to bring it to your child's school. The program has a GoFundMe campaign to help continue to develop programs for schools and parents as well.