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Scarlett Lewis

Forever changed without Jesse by Michelle Parks | December 25, 2016 at 1:00 a.m.
“I made the decision right then and there: I’m just going to start basing my choices in love. Because I realized that those would positively impact me, those around me, and, through the ripple effect, they would make the world a better place.” - Scarlett Lewis

Four years ago, Scarlett Lewis walked into the back room of the firehouse in Sandy Hook, Conn., and found a sheet of notebook paper filled with names. She added her son, Jesse Lewis, to the bottom of the list.

Six-year-old Jesse was among the students and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School unaccounted for after the shooting that took place there on Dec. 14, 2012.

Self Portrait

Scarlett Maureen Lewis

Date and place of birth: June 19, 1968, Fayetteville

A book I recently enjoyed is The Compassionate Achiever by Chris Kukk (a Choose Love foundation board member; book to be published in Spring 2017).

Two of my favorite books are The Man Who Listens on Horses by Monty Roberts and Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.

I would love to learn more about painting and painters.

The time of day I’m at my best is early morning, before the sun comes up. I sit down with coffee and am able to really focus and get a lot accomplished.

When I was a child, I was obsessed with horses.

The key to being a good horseback rider is becoming one with the horse. And it’s having patience and being firm and direct in your communication and being gentle and developing a trusting bond.

One item that’s always in my kitchen cabinets is popcorn from my brother’s company, Quinn Popcorn. The problem is I have to eat the whole thing.

My favorite desert is homemade ice cream.

One thing I will not eat is olives.

On my Pandora list for walking right now is ’70s music — Led Zeppelin, Journey, Crosby Stills & Nash, Genesis, Stevie Wonder, the Rolling Stones, Billy Joel, Elton John.

In the car, I sing along to Olivia Newton-John, Cher, Mariah Carey.

My favorite movie of all time is Rocky.

I would love to travel to New Zealand.

I relax by sitting barefoot in my wicker swing in a tree in the yard, looking at the farm.

One word that sums me up: hopeful.

"It never occurred to me that those people weren't ... I always get choked up about the number of people," Lewis says in a whisper. "It's just overwhelming still. It never occurred to me that all those people were dead."

Jesse was one of the 20 first-graders and six staff members who died at the school that day. It was the deadliest mass shooting at a high school or grade school in U.S. history.

In addition to those 26, two others were victims that day: Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old shooter, and his mother, a single parent raising a son with mental health problems. As far as police know, Lanza killed his mother earlier that day. He took his own life at the school.

In the aftermath of what Lewis calls "the tragedy," she has taken a message that Jesse left on their kitchen chalkboard -- "nurturing healing love," phonetically spelled out -- and transformed that into a way to bring compassion into classrooms and beyond. She founded the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation and has worked with educators, researchers and others to develop the Choose Love Enrichment Program, which teaches social and emotional learning.

After years of planning, the program is being tested in classrooms around the country this year, including two in Northwest Arkansas, along with entire schools and by more than 100 teachers and counselors in states such as Connecticut, New York, Hawaii, New Mexico, North Carolina and Kentucky.

Lewis, a Fayetteville native, visited this region in late September to meet with teachers at George Elementary School in Springdale and with parents at Washington Elementary School in Fayetteville. Piloting the program at Washington Elementary is particularly meaningful because of her family's deep roots there. Her great-grandfather, Bert Lewis, was on the school board when the school was built, and her dad's oldest brother, Herb Lewis, began attending there in 1933.

Her father, David Lewis, also of Fayetteville, says that her story is an example for others about how to respond to external forces in life and to know that one has the choice among love, fear and anger.

"Most people see anger as a reflex. Seeing anger as a choice is a game changer," he says. "'Choose love' is a message not just for kids; it's a message for all of us."


Born in Fayetteville in 1968, Scarlett Lewis was just 1 when the family moved to Chicago for her dad's job at Salomon Brothers. Then they moved to Darien, Conn. -- where her mom, Maureen Lewis, still lives -- when she was 12. She and her three younger brothers, Trent, Jordan and Coulter, grew up in "a fairy tale," with loving parents and a beautiful home.

She has always loved horses and bought her first one from a neighbor in Kildeer, Ill. She raised half the $1,500 purchase price over a summer mowing lawns and baby-sitting. Her dad pitched in the rest. In Connecticut, the family converted their garage into a barn so she could keep horses.

Stephanie Bierman, who lives in North Carolina and has been friends with Lewis since junior high, says Lewis is consistently genuine and authentic and "blazes her own trail." Bierman, a former school counselor, is now the foundation's "chief inspiration officer."

"It does not surprise me that she's responded the way that she has to a tragedy," Bierman says. "She's always been that kind of passionate, engaging person that you want to be around. She just has that magnetic energy."

The divorce of Lewis' parents when she was 18 devastated her. She has since had two failed major relationships -- with her two sons' fathers -- and she thinks she chose them out of fear, worried from the start about the relationships ending. But she's thankful for all the time spent with her sons. "I was present with Jesse, and I know that he knew he was loved," she says.

After getting a communications degree at Boston University, Lewis struggled to support herself with two jobs: at a lawyer's office and at the Greenwich Time newspaper. Her dad offered to teach her about the financial world, specifically trading municipal bonds on Wall Street. She interned where he worked, Greenwich Capital Markets, and then moved with him to Arkansas for another opportunity.


In 1993, Lewis and her father returned to Fayetteville to work for Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton. The daughter worked on the regular trading desk for Walton's municipal bonds sales force and then handled investment banking for Walton's Llama Co.

Operating out of the company's downtown square office, Lewis shouldered big decisions and responsibilities, managing a portfolio worth millions of dollars. She'd been trained well and knew the formulas but also had good instincts. "Along with the stress, it was excitement. I loved it," she says.

Lewis recalls traveling around Arkansas, working with communities to refinance municipal bonds. She had to be "credible and friendly" as she tried to convince them each was worth approving. On weekends, she relaxed by going horseback riding on the 800-acre farm she leased along Fayetteville's Cato Springs Road.

Lewis still gets together annually with friends made at painting classes with Jane Garrison Davidian during that time. Often, they transformed Lewis' living room into a temporary studio. This year, Lewis went to Davidian's studio and gallery in September to work on portraits of her sons: J.T., playing football, and Jesse as an angel.

When Lewis moved back to Connecticut in 1998, she bought a 1740s farmhouse in Sandy Hook, a borough of Newtown, with land for animals -- dogs, chickens and horses. "It's not an easy life, especially when you're single. There's constant work," she says.

Lewis says she had never felt the desire to be a mother until she met her older son's father. They fell in love and got married, and she had J.T. in 2001. She had been selling a trading system in New York but decided to stay home with her new baby and let her six trading licenses expire. She'd hoped for a picture-perfect marriage, but couldn't make it happen.

She then met Jesse's father, and Jesse was born in 2006. He was a big baby at 11 pounds. "He was always larger than life; he was always loud and energetic," Lewis says. He was joyous and confident and looked forward to Saturday horseback riding lessons with his best friend.

For Jesse's last birthday in June 2012, he got an Army costume he wore around the house and as pajamas. He patrolled their field, squirt gun in hand, and Lewis feels like he was gearing up for a mission. After the shooting, she instinctively knew that Jesse did something brave.


Lewis was at work in the town of Orange, 45 minutes from the school, the morning of the shooting. It was less than two weeks until Christmas, and Lewis and Jesse's father had planned to join the boy that afternoon at school to make a gingerbread house.

When Lewis arrived, parents had been gathered at the firehouse to pick up their children, and Lewis saw many tearful reunions. She looked for her son, asked a group of teachers, even went to a house next door where she heard he might have gone. But she ended up back at the firehouse in a back room, where they told her to write Jesse's name on the list of those missing.

Her mom and stepfather arrived with J.T., and a police officer asked her what Jesse had been wearing and for any identifying marks -- like the mole on his foot. "During the course of the day, I came to my own realization of what happened, but it was gradual," she says.

Lewis later learned that Lanza, a former student, shot the principal and counselor and then entered Jesse's first-grade classroom. Lanza shot Jesse's teacher first, as Jesse stood nearby, then paused to reload his semi-automatic rifle. In the delay, Jesse yelled to other students, "Run, run now." They later said they ran because Jesse yelled. Lanza replaced the clip and killed everyone else in the classroom. He then went to the next classroom and killed several children hiding in a bathroom.

Early the next morning, Jesse's dad sent a link to a New York Post story that eulogized their son for his bravery. Lewis read that Lanza had killed 26 people at the school; every person on that sheet of notebook paper was dead.

Family and friends surrounded Lewis and J.T. for about two weeks, including a painful Christmas. She knew they needed to reconnect as a family of two, and they briefly escaped to Disney World.

After Jesse's death, Lewis says she realized she had no fear for the first time. "I had been through the worst thing that a parent could experience, so I had nothing to fear." She saw that she had made her major life decisions -- from relationships to jobs -- based on fear.

"I made the decision right then and there: I'm just going to start basing my choices in love. Because I realized that those would positively impact me, those around me, and, through the ripple effect, they would make the world a better place."

Lewis remembered Jesse's three words on the kitchen chalkboard, and she knew she'd found her new purpose. A professor at Western Connecticut State University said those three words are in the definition of compassion across all cultures. Nurturing means kindness and gratitude; healing means forgiveness; and love is compassion in action.

Lewis refused to be Lanza's victim and felt compassion for him; she knew a school program based on compassion could have prevented his actions. At Jesse's funeral, Lewis asked people to turn one angry thought into a loving thought every day, and the seed of the "choose love" movement was planted.


Anxiety in children can begin by age 6, and that anxiety can lead to emotional and mental health problems, and even substance abuse and violence, Lewis says. The Sandy Hook Advisory Report, released after the shootings, recommended three areas for prevention: gun safety, increased access to mental health treatment and social and emotional learning.

Social and emotional learning has been around for decades, Lewis says. One hurdle to getting it into classrooms is the cost, so her Choose Love Enrichment Program is free. The curriculum for kindergarten through 12th grade was written by educators for educators, and the materials are accessible online.

John Cook, a teacher in Norwalk, Conn., wears a green wristband with the formula Lewis created: courage + gratitude + forgiveness + compassion in action = choosing love. The program teaches students about emotional intelligence, responsible decision-making, relationship skills and awareness and understanding feelings. Without those skills, Cook says, students aren't able to achieve academically.

After Jesse's death, Lewis left her executive assistant job and put her full energy into the Choose Love foundation and program. She draws a small salary from the foundation, which has received donations and grants, including a major one from the NoVo Foundation.

She now travels the world, speaking at conferences, schools and prisons, and she talks about post-traumatic growth, which is more common than post-traumatic stress disorder. "We find strength we never knew we had. We find meaning and purpose in our lives," she says. "You're not just bouncing back to where you were, you're growing way beyond where you were."

Tara Lechtenberger, a counselor at Washington Elementary, says the pilot program is reaching about 300 pupils. She says Lewis' passion is contagious, and her message is one her students are thirsty for.

"They don't want to be fighting and in turmoil, but they want to know how [to live otherwise]," she says. "When you have a whole school culture that's choosing love, it's going to be amazing."

Lewis wrote the book Nurturing Healing Love about her experience. Krislyn Petti, an English teacher at an urban high school in Waterbury, Conn., read it last year with her students, many of whom have experienced horrible life events. They pledged to pursue the book's choosing love formula, and by the end of the school year, 60 percent raised their GPAs, and at-risk students' behavior improved.

"[Lewis] has taken that tragedy and has manifested it into something that could literally help every kid in every school in every country," Petti says.

Lewis has gone from the bottom up and from the top down, meeting with President Barack Obama and other White House officials and lawmakers. And she says she'll keep going because the shootings haven't stopped since Sandy Hook. As of June 1 this year, there have been 186 more shootings on school campuses in the United States.

"I have to do everything in my power to make sure that no parent ever goes through what I went through, and I know there is a solution," Lewis says.

And that September afternoon, after Lewis introduced her solution to teachers at George Elementary School, she put out a sign-up sheet for those interested. They all lined up to add their names to the list.

NAN Profiles on 12/25/2016

Print Headline: Scarlett Lewis


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