When Tragedy Strikes, Choose to Be Part of the Solution with Scarlett Lewis
Be an example of nurturing, healing and love every day.
Scarlett Lewis founded the nonprofit Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement after her son was murdered during the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy in December 2012. In today’s show, Scarlett discusses how her decision to choose love, healing, and nurturing, which were inspired by Jesse, launched a worldwide movement that is transforming schools, families, and cities.
“You have to love and appreciate yourself before you can do that for others.”
Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement
Scarlett Lewis founded the nonprofit Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement after her son was murdered during the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy in December 2012. After his death, Scarlett became part of the solution to the issues that we’re seeing in our society—and that also caused the tragedy. She created the Movement and became an advocate for social and emotional learning (SEL) and character development that teaches children how to manage their emotions, feel connected, and have healthy relationships. Speaking across the US and internationally to diverse audiences, Scarlett urges everyone to become part of the solution.
Scarlett created the Choose Love for Schools Program, a no-cost, comprehensive, lifespan, next generation SEL and character development program that teaches children and adults how to thoughtfully respond with love in any situation, handle adversity, and have courageous conversations by using the Choose Love Formula of: Courage + Gratitude + Forgiveness + Compassion-in-Action = Choosing Love. Choose Love has been extended into homes, communities, athletics, and the workplace. The programs have been accessed in all 50 states and 100 countries, reaching more than 1.9 million children. Learn more at ChooseLoveMovement.org and join the Movement to help make the world a more loving, and peaceful place.
“We all have to take responsibility for what’s going on in our world and we can all do something to be part of the solution.”
Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement
Hello, I’m Michael Kurland, CEO and Co-Founder of Branded Group, an award-winning national facilities maintenance company that services multi-site commercial properties such as retail, restaurants, healthcare facilities, and educational institutions.
Welcome to the BeBetter podcast! Each week, I interview thought leaders from a variety of industries who will share their stories and the lessons they learned as they strive to be better for their clients, partners, employees, and their community. Are you ready to Be Better?
Michael Kurland (00:02):
Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Be Better podcast. I’m your host, Michael Kurland. Joining me today is Scarlett Lewis, founder and Chief Movement Officer of the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement. Scarlett, welcome to the show. Please introduce yourself and tell us a little bit more about who you are.
Scarlett Lewis (00:24):
Thank you so much, Michael. It’s an honor to be here. I founded the Choose Love Movement following the murder of my 6-year-old son, Jesse McCord Lewis, in his first-grade classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary School, alongside 19 of his classmates and 6 educators in one of the worst mass shootings in US history. Jesse left us a message on our kitchen chalkboard. He wrote 3 words shortly before he died: nurturing, healing, love. I found them when I came back to the house after the tragedy and realized that if the shooter, who was a former student, had been able to give and receive nurturing, healing, love, the tragedy would never have happened. It was so simple but, of course, simple, isn’t always easy. I realized I have to be part of the solution. I quit my job and dedicated my life to making sure that kids have the essential life skills that have to be taught, by the way, that enable them to have healthy and meaningful connections. That’s the key to a flourishing life, being able to manage our emotions, being able to learn, grow, and even be strengthened by difficulty and other essential life skills. That’s what we do to this day.
Michael Kurland (02:00):
Again, thank you for coming on the show and being willing to openly share your story. I know that it’s probably difficult to talk about or maybe not anymore because you’ve probably been doing this for a very long time. I just want to applaud you because people in your situation could have done so many different things and no one would have said any of them were wrong. You chose to do the Choose Love Movement. Bravo to you for doing that and thank you.
I want to talk about everything before the day of the shooting. Who were you and what was your life like? Let’s talk about that to that point in your life and then go into the Choose Love Movement and really get into. I think that’s very important.
Scarlett Lewis (02:56):
Up until December 14, 2012, I was a single mom of 2 boys with a full-time job. I was an Executive Assistant to a CEO, but I’ve done a whole bunch of things as a single mom, supporting my boys. We live on a little farm in Sandy Hook, which is a pastoral area. It’s a nice town right in the center of Sandy Hook, of Connecticut. We had a nice life, really busy, but happy and a few challenges thrown in there and then it all changed.
Michael Kurland (03:40):
Leading up to that day, you were living life normally.
Scarlett Lewis (03:47):
Michael Kurland (03:47):
Normal. Whatever that means.
Scarlett Lewis (03:49):
Michael Kurland (03:49):
This terrible tragedy happens, and you’re altered forever. As we talked about before, you could have chosen to be so many different emotions, so many different things. You could have been angry. You could have wanted revenge. You could have wanted to see bad things happen to this guy and anyone involved with him or wish those things. Instead, you chose to take those 3 words that were on your chalkboard and turn them into an entire movement. Talk to me about that and the mindset that it took to go there, instead of all these other places that no one would have really given any fault for you choosing to do.
Scarlett Lewis (04:37):
It was a process, but I had a good foundation right away. That day, before we even had the announcement of the long list of people that were missing were not coming back, I was practicing being present. That’s what I did in my life with my boys, by the way, trying to be present. I remember the day that I realized that I spent more time at work than I did with my boys during the week. That was the day I came home and I literally unplugged my TV. I remember walking out in the front yard with it and dropped it off at Goodwill the next day on my way to work. By the way, that’s the way to live life with the fewest regrets is being present with the ones that you love. I practiced that. Even that day at the firehouse with all of the chaos that was there, I wanted to be present because I wanted to thoughtfully respond and not react. My 12-year-old son ended up leaving his middle school and coming to wait with me, thinking that Jesse would be coming back. Of course, things like that don’t happen to people like me. You know what I mean? I’m just a normal person. Leading up to getting the news, obviously chaos, first responders coming and telling me some pretty difficult questions, such as “Do you have a recent picture of Jesse?” That’s not a good sign. “Does he have any identifying marks?” I’m thinking about my 12-year- old son watching me. Watching every move that I made, every word that came out of my mouth.
Our communication is so much more than just words, and I realized in the moment I was modeling for him how to get through difficulty for the rest of his life. It really helped me to be the best version of myself that I could in the moment. I carried that with me. Very shortly after, a few days after the tragedy, we learned that Jesse had stood up to the shooter as he came into his first-grade classroom, and he had saved 9 of his friend’s lives at 6 years old. That example of courage was also very inspiring to me. I think about that every single day when things are tough. I think my gosh if Jesse at 6 years old could have done that, I certainly, certainly can quit my job and rise to the occasion and address the cause of the suffering that created that tragedy, that creates so many other tragedies like it since then, and even before then and be part of the solution. I have to be.
There were a few other things that happened. One counselor came to my house early on and she was trying to tell me how my healing was going to go. She was saying, “I lost a son, too.” It was the first time I had ever spoken to somebody who had been in a similar situation. My eyes were riveted. I wasn’t really that interested, honestly, until she said that. I thought, “Whoa. Here’s somebody that’s been through it. She’s lived through it. What does that look like?” Because at that point, I wasn’t sure if I could do it. She said,” I’m here to tell you that the pain that you feel right now, you will always feel. It will always feel that way.” I put my hand up to her and I said, “Stop. Stop right there. That might be your path, but that is not going to be my path.” At the time, I kind of understand a little bit more of what she meant to communicate now because you do always live with loss. At the time I was thinking, that just thrust me into this mindset of “I’m creating my own path. I have to. I’m not doing that. I can’t. Alright. Here it is. You have a brand-new slate. Your life, the way it was is done. You have a brand-new slate to create on. What do you want it to look like?”
I think the key in all of this is choice. It was a choice that I made, and I can look back and see many other choices that I made that got me to this point. I was aware also that it was my choice and that my choices were also going to impact my son. I wanted to model for him what nurturing, healing, love, what health and healing look like.
Michael Kurland (09:46):
You’re such a strong person. We talked pre-show about a couple of things that I jotted down and you kind of touched on there. I want to emphasize them for the audience. You said when everything happened, when the tragedy happened, you decided that you were going to choose love and everything going forward. I thought that was very profound that in such a time of, again, grief and all these other emotions that you decided, like you said just now, you have the choice. You decided you were going to choose love going forward. II thought that was very profound. You just said it now, but you said it pre-show, too, that you wanted solutions. You wanted to find solutions. You didn’t want to be the victim. The solutions, going forward, were going give you your peace, I guess, instead of playing the victim role. I think that’s something that everyone needs to hear because it’s very easy to fall into the role of victim. Most people won’t blame you for doing something like that. Not you, but anybody, when you have a tragic moment in life, but you chose that you wanted solutions, and you chose love. Thank you for being here, and thank you for sharing that. Thank you for choosing love.
Scarlett Lewis (11:15):
You know what Michael, I watched afterwards after that tragedy, and I saw so much blame being assigned. Many people pointing fingers at different people. Of course, a lot of that blame went towards the shooter who was a former student of Sandy Hook Elementary School and his mother who gave him access to the guns. For me, that didn’t make sense because if it was all their fault, it would never have happened before. Wait a minute. It did. Then it would never happen again, but wait a minute. It’s now our new normal 8 years later. That can’t be all their fault, so then whose fault is it? I realized I had to take my part of the responsibility for what happened in my community and I had to rise to the occasion to be part of the solution.
It was a great decision on my part. A lot of people questioned me in doing that, but it was a huge part of my healing to be able to offer the solution. I realized that a lot of times we are so reactive, and we focus on the negative with our innate negative bias, that a lot of times when problems come up, we focus on the problem. You can see this in a lot of messaging that we have, too. We focus on the problem instead of what causes that problem. I realized we’re never going to get a solution to school shootings, bullying, which is at all-time highs, substance abuse – all-time highs, mental health issues – all-time highs, all of these issues, unless we address the cause for that suffering. We can. It’s just a different way of thinking.
Michael Kurland (13:22):
You touched on a lot of things there. The root cause. Let’s talk about that and what the root cause is. Why is substance abuse at an all-time high? Why are school shootings at an all-time high? Why are mental health issues at an all-time high? What’s that root cause in your opinion?
Scarlett Lewis (13:44):
It’s interesting, Michael, because so many people have been calling me and they’re just shocked at what’s going on in the world today. I know in Connecticut, our emergency rooms are packed to overflowing with kids that have suicidal ideation or attempts or they’re self-mutilating. They have to wait for hours to even be seen and then they’re put in rooms for days before they get any help. We’re overloaded and I imagine that that’s going on in other states as well. You read the news. I read the news. I don’t watch it because I don’t have a TV. Regardless, you see what’s going on. I don’t know why people are shocked. This is what I predicted. We’re coming out of a state of social distancing and that’s the oxymoron for what we need as human beings. We need connection. Connection is love and belonging. We’re humans. We’re wired for this and when we don’t get it, that’s a problem.
When you ask what the cause is, it can start prenatally which is, by the way, is why the first program I did for the Choose Love Movement was a prenatal program. A lot depends on the mother’s response to her environment. You can’t always choose the environment that you’re in, but you can choose your response. Depending on your response, that directly correlates to how your baby’s brain is forming. Moving into infant-toddler is such an important part for brain development. It’s so important to get a solid start. It depends on how individuals began. How they came into this world, if they had secure attachments, if they had relationships and family around, what amount of trauma they had in their lives. That depends a lot on some things, but also what I chose to focus on were essential life skills called social and emotional intelligence that can help us manage even a rough beginning and be able to choose our outcomes. This is being able to have healthy relationships and meaningful connections. These are skills and tools that we’re not born with. We have to learn how to manage our emotions, how to grow through difficulty, how to make responsible decisions. All of these things are not innate within us, and they’re easy to teach, easy to learn and you practice them throughout life.
The interesting thing is when I was researching a solution, I realized very quickly that at 44 years old, which is how old I was when Jesse was murdered, I didn’t have a lot of these skills and tools. I have a college degree and I did a little bit of everything from investment banking and bond trading to real estate as a single mom. But, I did not have a lot of social and emotional intelligence. Helping create this lifespan program that we have, I have learned so much and my life is exponentially better. I still have that loss. I still have pain from that loss every day, but other aspects of my life are much more manageable because of my increased social and emotional intelligence.
Michael Kurland (17:32):
So much to unpack there. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the author, Sebastian Junger. He wrote the book Tribe. The reason I was talking about this is because you were talking about part of the programming that you put together as the prenatal and how we’re social distancing. He was on Tim Ferriss’ podcast a couple of weeks ago, and he was talking about how we are primates at the end of the day. We’re the only primates that make children sleep in a separate room. All animals sleep together. They congregate together, and they’re close to their mother because at the end of the day, you’re scared of some sort of attack. Your mother is there to help you. That’s why most kids they say are scared of the dark. I never really put all this together. I heard it the other day. It’s so true.
Scarlett Lewis (18:27):
Our amygdala is one of the first parts of our brain to form and that forms while we’re still in utero. It’s our freeze, fight or flight because we need to be safe. You’re exactly right.
Michael Kurland (18:40):
When you’re put in another room, you just feel terrified. I thought that was important to talk about. Everything that you’ve done now, going forward since that day, you’ve started the Choose Love Movement. Talk to me about this movement. Tell me like what you’ve done, what it consists of, and what we want to do with it. This is very important. If the world would just choose love. Like you said, on the day that of the tragedy, everyone wanted to blame someone. Everyone wanted to have someone to point a finger at. At the end of the day, that doesn’t resolve anything. That just sells advertising on whatever news station you’re tuning into. Let’s talk about what you decided to do with this day and where we’re going now.
Scarlett Lewis (19:29):
I do want to add though as far as responses to the Sandy Hook tragedy, also that was an incredible time of compassion in action. When people felt what we were feeling, when they identified with the need, and they responded. It was absolutely incredible how the world came together in love that day. That inspired me as well because I know it’s possible, not just in the aftermath of a tragedy. I know that it’s a choice that we can make. That’s the flow that I am trying to get into right there when the world unites in love. We’re all the same in the want and need to love and be loved. I wanted to create something in such a divided world and then it was guns/no guns. Now it’s politics and more. I wanted us all to focus on what we have in common as human beings. The want and need to love and be loved. In that, we’re all the same.
That is really the premise of the Choose Love Movement, as well as the fact that we can’t always choose what happens to us in life. I certainly wouldn’t have chosen what happened to Jesse; however, I can take my personal power back in my thoughtful response. When I choose love in that thoughtful response, that makes the world a better place. We have really researched all of the best solutions and that includes social and emotional learning. It includes character education, positive psychology, post-traumatic growth, trauma implements, mindfulness. More. I’m thinking of these things off the top of my head, but even more. We put it into one program, and we made it no cost because I know that this would have saved Jesse’s life. It can reduce and prevent the majority of the suffering that we’re seeing in our world.
Jesse was priced out of the market. Our school had spent so much money on a program that they couldn’t afford to train the teachers. I was literally told the program never got out of the box. I turned around with that branded in my brain and wanted to create a solution that would overcome that. Because literally, not only every child but every individual, is entitled to these essential life skills that we know through science and decades of research are a direct path to flourishing. It’s what we provide, and we call it next generation. We start with the self because you have to love and appreciate yourself before you can do that for others then we extend the learning into classrooms, schools, homes, communities, and businesses.
Michael Kurland (22:51):
Ok. Agreed. I learned a long time ago: if you don’t love yourself first, you can’t have any room to love anyone else because you don’t even know how to do it. Once you learn how to love yourself. I’m glad that you brought that up and that’s what you focus on first. There’s so many people out there that don’t even know how to love themselves, first of all. Once you learn how to love yourself first. It’s hard. It’s hard to retrain and reprogram your brain when you don’t know how to love yourself first.
Scarlett Lewis (23:25):
It’s hard, but it’s not impossible. You can do it. It just takes focused effort but literally you can. That’s the beauty of our brains. They’re incredible. They are adaptive to any situation, and we can rewire them at any point. It literally comes down to a choice. Do you want to choose love, or do you want to choose fear? That’s the base of every decision that we make, and the outcomes look vastly different.
Michael Kurland (23:54):
We talked about this pre-show. If this program was in place in Sandy Hook when the shooter was going through that school, do we think the outcome would be different? You said, “Yes.” He was bullied probably for a good portion of his life and had a lot of issues. I think that would be the case for any of these mass shooters in America or all over the world. If they had a program in place where they were nurtured and not bullied and they found a way to choose love and shown love, it would have changed the outcome. I think that was the root cause.
Scarlett Lewis (24:32):
Let’s think about it. If you know that you have a choice and you know how to get there to make that choice, what choice are you going to make? Let’s make this very, very, very simple because it really is simple. We all just want to feel good. We all just want to feel good. We’re going to do that in only one of two ways. We’re going to do it through bullying because I’m going to try to offput my pain onto you. I’m going to try to feel control. I’m going to try to make friends by being dominant, whatever that is. We’re going to do it that way. We’re going to be angry. Anger feels kind of good. Doesn’t it, initially? We feel like we’re in control. We get that surge of adrenaline but, of course, we know that prolonged anger is as bad for you as smoking. What is it? Two packs of cigarettes a day or something. We’re going to do it in negative ways or we’re going to do it in positive ways. We’re going to feel good by having healthy connections and relationships and expressing and giving love. If we have a choice, the majority, the vast, vast, vast majority, maybe everybody would choose love.
Michael Kurland (25:51):
I think the vast majority would choose love as well. I think that what you’re doing is amazing. Talk about your growth. Where are you now? How many countries? How many schools? How many students, roughly?
Scarlett Lewis (26:07):
We started in 2013. The tragedy was December 14, 2012. The foundation was created in January of 2013. We spent a few years developing our programming, making connections, learning from educators and the school system where the gaps were, what needed to be done to create solutions. We launched our program about 5 years ago.
I do want to say, during COVID, we re-created it so that it was relevant to the current environment. We even have a part of our program called Choosing Love in Our Brave New World because it is a brave, new world. Things that we’re teaching our kids have to be relevant to where we are right now, within the last 5 years. By the way, this is word of mouth. We have spread to over 10,000 schools in every state and 112 countries. We continue to grow by word of mouth.
Michael Kurland (27:20):
That’s amazing, just that right there. You’re in every state. You’re affecting the lives of children in a positive way. It’s going to take… I don’t know if you can even quantify it because you’re heading a lot of things off of the pass that are never going to happen.
Scarlett Lewis (27:43):
Absolutely. Yes. It’s transformative. It’s life-transforming and lifesaving. We have specific examples of both of those things and then there’s the ripple effect.
Michael Kurland (27:55):
Right. Exactly. Give a couple examples of how it’s transforming and lifesaving on the positive note. Let’s talk about that a little bit.
Scarlett Lewis (28:05):
There was a senior in high school in a Connecticut school and he had attempted suicide. He had a really, kind of a tough upbringing, lived in a tough area. He had very few connections and was hospitalized. He came back to school and his teacher taught him the Choose Love formula. He is now one of our youth ambassadors and says that the formula and Choose Love saved his life. He is very outspoken about that.
We have beautiful stories from educators. In fact, we have a daily email called the Daily Dose of Love. These are stories every single day. We were getting so much positive feedback. We wanted to share it with the world because we’re all in this together about how schools, homes, and communities were thoughtfully responding with love in all different kinds of ways and how it was influencing different aspects of people’s lives and going beyond the classroom walls and impacting communities.
We have communities that now have Choose Love Movement days. These are proclamations made by their mayors, where they celebrate the fact that they can choose love. Everyone comes together to do this. It’s really incredible. In fact, New Hampshire has actually done what no one ever even envisioned for social and emotional learning. The governor there hired my Choose Love ambassadors. I have an ambassador in almost every state. These are volunteers that just say, “I believe in what you’re doing” Most of them are educators and “I want to help spread the word.” I had an ambassador in New Hampshire that the governor pretty much hired on the spot. Now the program is in the majority of schools, but not just that. It’s in homes. It’s in communities. It’s in the Department of Health and Human Services. It’s in the Department of Safety. It’s in DCYF. It’s in the foster care system. It’s in the AG’s office. In fact, they just made a media announcement that they had gotten a grant to modify the Choose Love programming to bring into their entire prison system. Wow! A common language that could bring together all of these previously siloed efforts so that they can all work together to the best interests of individuals and families. It’s incredible.
Michael Kurland (31:00):
It is incredible. Everything you just said. The difference that you’re making is amazing, and I know your son would definitely be proud. I just want to say thank you so much for coming on the show. If the audience wants to get to know more about the movement, how can they do so?
Scarlett Lewis (31:25):
Please visit our website: chooselovemovement.org. We’re on all the social media sites. Please like us. Share us. This is all by word of mouth, so your word of mouth as well. We all have to take responsibility for what’s going on in our world, and we can all do something to be part of the solution. In fact, the way that we’ve been able to keep our programming at no cost are individuals like the ones listening to your podcast, Michael, and small donations. Everybody coming together wanting to be part of the solution.
Michael Kurland (32:06):
Audience, go visit that website and donate if possible. This is a great thing that everyone can put a couple of dollars towards that at the very least. Scarlett, again, thank you for coming on the show. If the audience wants to get ahold of you, how can they do so?
Scarlett Lewis (32:24):
You can click the contact button on the choosemovemovement.org. It goes to me and I would love to speak with you.
Michael Kurland (32:34):
Great. Again, thank you for your courage and coming on the show and sharing your story. I really appreciate and everything you’re doing for the world. Audience, until next time.
Thank you for tuning in! I hope that today’s episode inspired you to become a purpose-driven leader in your career or your community. There is no doubt that when we lead with purpose, we can change lives. If you enjoyed today’s show, I’d be grateful if you would take a moment to rate us on your preferred listening platform.
To learn more Branded Group’s “Be Better” experience and how we provide California-based facility maintenance, visit us at www.branded-group.com. Be sure to follow us on social media and you can also reach out to me directly on LinkedIn. Until next time, Be Better.