The pandemic has impacted everyone and it almost intentionally highlighted the need for mental health awareness to help people impacted by trauma, anxiety, and challenges, not only from COVID-19 but from other life experiences. After experiencing a horrific tragedy nine years ago, I knew that we needed to be more cognizant of the effect of outside stressors on our mental health. When my six-year-old son was murdered in his first grade classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary it impacted not only my life but that of the other victims’ families and it culminated a greater recognition of how every one of us is responsible for what is happening in the world and to collectively find an expansive solution to many of the issues plaguing our children, and even adults. I knew we needed a novel approach to age-old problems, including bullying, violence, substance abuse, suicide, and other mental health issues. I set forth recruiting volunteers to help facilitate the teaching of empowering essential life skills to children, such as how to manage their emotions, grow through compassion and forgiveness, make responsible decisions and positive choices, cultivate healthier relationships and meaningful connections, and foster resilience in the face of adversity.
I wasn’t a natural born leader. I didn’t have leadership training or experience. I started a nonprofit to address these issues following a tragedy that rocked my very foundation eight years ago in 2012. Sandy Hook was one of many school shootings that happened before, and unfortunately, after. I knew after investigating the cause that each one was preventable and I found the courage to speak up and offer a solution. At the time it didn’t feel like bravery, it just felt like something I had to do for other parents and their children so they wouldn’t have to go through the pain and suffering that I and the other victims’ families had experienced.
To help me create a 501(c)3, I asked for guidance from those who had greater knowledge than myself as I dove into the education field. Researching the trajectory of the escalating issues in schools, I knew there was vast room for improvement. I created a team of gifted educators, mental health professionals, and other innovative leaders in associated fields and we focused our efforts on the cause of the problems as most of the programming to date had been directed at the issues themselves. We created a proactive and preventative model that has swept the country and is currently being used in more than 100 countries.
For years, I traveled nonstop, visiting schools, homes, and communities, and came to know the people we served. My vision was born out of necessity, but not everyone understood or agreed. Many people preferred remaining in their comfort zones with the current reactive way of addressing the problems. The science is clear that there is a more effective way. In my travels I learned that change takes courage and that cultivating the courage to do things in a different way was another part of my job. I had a tremendous role model in this category — my son, Jesse. His heroic actions saved nine of his first grade classmates’ lives before losing his own. For me, to follow my heart and focus my efforts on correcting the trajectory that leads to disaster was easy by comparison.
Things weren’t always smooth sailing, however. At one point early on, a few of my board members advocated for a more modest approach. They wanted to focus on just a few grade levels. I wanted our program to serve everyone. They did not want me to champion justice outside my non-profit work, including legally; I felt it was my duty. They hired an executive director to replace me and challenged me to ‘turn over the reins.’ As a lifelong horsewoman I understood the metaphor but it only lasted two months for both the gentleman we hired as well as myself. One Monday morning I received a call from the Executive Director saying he quit because I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, step aside. Directly after that, I learned a few of my board members were exiting as well. I was devastated at the time. In fact, I remember getting off that initial call and physically bending over double in panic.
It took me several weeks to realize I was back where I started — a mom on a mission. I am proud to be leading this organization and, it turns out, there is great demand for our programming, for all ages. In my mind, the need was too great to limit our offerings. With the pandemic, the urgency for a focus on mental and emotional wellness has only grown.
The building blocks of success were present: a devastating societal issue that was preventable with easy to learn and fun to teach programming that we created to address the cause. We empower individuals by giving them skills and tools that enable them to choose their response and build healthy and meaningful connections that will lead them to flourish. This in turn solves much suffering and even potential deadly issues and makes the world a better place for everyone. We even inserted love and ‘having a Lot of fun’ into the equation!
In the end I will admit I had an unfair advantage. I was given clear direction in a message that Jesse left on our kitchen chalkboard, ‘Nurturing Healing Love.’ An undertaking grounded in love is bound to succeed. For myself, I’ve learned that finding meaning required a purpose for the greater good. Leadership necessitates the ability to be open to what’s outside the norm and believing in yourself even when others don’t. Then, when you’re challenging others to accept a new paradigm, it’s cultivating the courage for them to step outside their comfort zone and join the movement! I questioned myself time and again but it turns out, I do have what it takes.
The amalgamation of my life experiences, including motivation fueled by pain, as well as my determination trumped a lack of credentials. Ultimately, I was able to lead an organization that is now providing essential skills programming and improving school cultures all over the world, making schools safer and more connected. This is my purpose and brings meaning to my life. Even though it’s not what I planned on, or even imagined in my wildest dreams, it is what I was put on this earth to do and I’m grateful for the opportunity.