Her anger was still palpable when she woke up the morning of what would have been the seventh birthday of her son Jesse, one of 26 people killed six months earlier by a gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., in 2012.
That’s when Scarlett Lewis said she began the process of forgiving.
Lewis told her powerful story and outlined her program, the Choose Love Enrichment Program, on Friday to a rapt audience of teachers, students, administrators and law enforcement at Burrell High School.
A free social and emotional learning program for students in pre-kindergarten through the 12th grade, there is much more to it than New Age, feel-good buzz words like “mindfulness.”
Burrell School District is on board and recently hired Marissa Ameris as the district’s social and emotional learning specialist. She believes Burrell is the first, or among the first, Pennsylvania school districts to incorporate the Choose Love program in a major way.
Assistant high school Principal Carla Roland, who doubles as the district’s Safe School administrator, said, “Hardening (the physical security) of our schools is not enough. But to strengthen our students and staff — that is where the power is.”
On Friday, about 30 students were dressed in blue T-shirts that read “Burrell Choose Love.” They are part of the program’s new safety leadership team.
Lewis’ program is based on traditional and current neuroscience research, which she presented with urgency: Bullying is on the rise. More teens are dying from suicide. Drug use continues to surge. Most children with mental illness go untreated.
Lewis unfurled sobering statistics and brought the numbers to life with her own tragic story.
The problem is, as Lewis found out when she started asking questions at Sandy Hook after Jesse’s death, school districts aren’t likely to pay for traditional social-emotional curriculum programs.
Lewis’ activism grew from there as she took several years to build her science-based program, which she launched about three years ago.
So far, the Choose Love Enrichment Program has been downloaded more than 28,000 times by more than 11,400 educators in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., and in more than 70 countries.
Tragedy prompts call for change
It wasn’t only Jesse’s death, but his life, that inspired Lewis to develop the Choose Love program.
Especially, the last moments of his life.
While gathering Jesse’s funeral clothes, Lewis saw writing on the chalkboard in their home.
Jesse had written three words days before he died: Nurturing, healing, love.
The strength of her son’s words would live on in her program.
If nurturing, healing and love had been a part of the gunman’s life, Lewis said, “It wouldn’t have happened.”
Jesse’s courage also is a cornerstone of the program. Jesse yelled “run” to classmates, allowing six to escape when one of the gunman’s firearms jammed.
As his classmates escaped, Jesse was shot and killed.
That violence has led to an understanding by Lewis that at first seemed unfathomable.
“I feel there are two kinds of people,” she told the Burrell audience. “There are good people, and then there are good people in pain.”
She doesn’t believe that people just “snap,” and the problem isn’t just with “them.”
It is with “us,” she said.
Citing neuroscience research, Lewis noted that everyone has about 50,000 to 70,000 thoughts each day and, of those, about 70% to 80% are negative.
“A thought can be changed,” Lewis said, saying the challenge is consciously changing one negative thought into a positive one.
It’s this awareness and actively tending to thoughts that can change behavior.
Lewis added that her program is not “kid-centric” but a lifelong practice.
“These are skills that are not innate,” she said.