Scarlett Lewis had a very important choice to make.
She could choose to risk letting anger and hate guide her — maybe for the rest of her life — or she could choose to forgive.
She chose forgiveness, and gratitude and compassion. And she’s faced with choosing them again and again, every time anger and hate show themselves.
That was the heart of the message that Lewis shared as keynote speaker Monday night at the Tri-County Mental Health Services Inc. annual banquet. It was held at the Courtyard by Marriott Kansas City at Briarcliff hotel in Kansas City, North.
About 320 people attended the event.
Lewis lost her 6-year-old son Jesse on the morning of Dec. 14, 2012, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Jesse died there, one of 26 killed at the school that morning — 20 of whom were children.
Twenty-year-old Newtown resident Adam Lanza had shot his way into the school and, once inside, continued shooting. Lanza then took his own life. Sometime earlier, he had shot and killed his mother.
That morning, Lewis became one of the focal points of shock and disbelief that quickly spread across the country and around the world. That’s when she first faced her choice.
Within two months, Lewis made another choice: She founded the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation, in Newtown, where she and her 14-year-old son JT still live.
In a video on her foundation’s website, Lewis describes the foundation’s goal of “(instituting) programs into schools to teach children that they can choose love over anger, gratitude over entitlement, forgiveness and compassion.”
“Adam Lanza did not wake up on Dec. 14 a mass murderer,” she said. “It took years of anger.”
More recently, Lewis and author Natasha Stoynoff wrote a book titled “Nurturing, Healing Love: A Mother’s Journey of Hope & Forgiveness.”
“I am going to talk to you tonight about my loving son,” she said. “It’s a story about courage and hope, and about a little boy who left a message — a powerful one, for the world.”
Lewis took the title of her book from something her son had written on his chalkboard at home a few days before he died. It read “norurting helin love.”
“I have had those moments like this (when I’m speaking to groups) where ... (I think) ‘Wow, what am I doing here?’” Lewis said.
“Why? Wait, wait a second: Because my 6-year-old son was murdered? By a person who burst into his classroom in Sandy Hook? That can’t be right. Then I look up (at Jesse’s pictures). Yeah, I guess I’m here. That’s why. OK, back to reality.”
After Lanza entered Jesse’s classroom, started shooting, ran out of ammunition and started reloading, Jesse “chose to yell across the room to his friends to run,” Lewis said.
“I use it as perspective for my life every single day, when I think about how hard it is sometimes to wake up, to make the right choices, to do the right thing, to tell the truth, to have courage ... I feel like, if he could do something like that, at 6 years old, then certainly I can do my part and go back and spread compassion.”
The key, Lewis said, is to “choose to forgive, and enable yourself to step outside your own pain.”
Tri-County Mental Health Services also gave awards to several people Monday night, including:
Angela Shoemaker: Outstanding Consumer of the Year. Shoemaker received the award to recognize her success in managing her own recovery, Tri-County CEO Tom Petrizzo said.
Morty Lebedun: Phoenix Community Achievement Award. Lebedun was Tri-County’s original CEO, starting in 1995.
Sharon Wright: Employee of the Year. Wright is Tri-County’s Healthcare Home director.