After The Tragic Death of Their Son, Couple Finds New Respect For Life
Richard and Samantha Specht lost their 22-month-old son, Rees, in a drowning accident in 2013. Though they could have become immersed in emotional grief, the Long Island couple turned their personal tragedy into something positive by founding the ReesSpecht Life Foundation and Cultivate Kind school programs, which aim to encourage individuals to perform acts of kindness and pass it forward. The movement continues to grow throughout the country.
1) How did you decide to create this organization in memory of your son that aims to cultivate kindness?
The reality is that we really didn’t come up with our mission… it came up to us. When Rich spoke (at our son’s funeral), he talked about how everyone there had lifted us up. He mentioned the kind acts that people had already done for us and posed a question to everyone there: “Why wait until others are down to lift others up?” “Imagine if we used this power whenever we could? We could lift everyone up. That’s Respect,” he continued. “Our son’s nickname was Rees Specht. If you want to honor his life, do something to lift someone else up simply because you can.”
After Rich spoke, a colleague from work was moved by his words and pulled him aside. He told him that we should start a foundation based on the very principles he had just espoused and name it after Rees: ReesSpecht Life. That is how it started.
2) As part of your mission, you created something called ReesSpecht Life Cards. What are those?
The cards are meant to be a reminder to others that a simple act of kindness can make a tremendous difference. We came up with them after we tried, unsuccessfully, to pay back the kindness of those who helped us after Rees died. It really started when Bill Kelly from Kelly Brothers Landscaping offered to clean up our yard from Sandy’s devastation a week after the storm. He and his workers cleaned our yard (and later returned to re-design our entire landscape to remove the pond that Rees drowned in) for no charge. He would not let us pay him back, and his workers would not accept tips or anything else we offered them.
Frustrated that we couldn’t pay them back, our family decided that we would pay it forward. Our goal was to do 500 acts of kindness and leave a little card behind that explained why we were doing it and to memorialize Rees in a way that would hopefully bring a smile to people’s faces. We are almost five years out from that first act and have now distributed over 490,000 cards worldwide.
3) Tell us about your Cultivate Kindness school programs and why is this especially important right now?
At the time of Rees’ death, both Samantha and I were teachers. As the cards started to spread, schools started to reach out to us to ask if I could talk to their students about our experience. The only problem was that as a teacher, I really couldn’t get out to share the story unless the school had different vacation days than mine did.
In an effort to get the message out, I wrote a children’s book titled “A Little Rees Specht Cultivates Kindness” about a little farmer named Rees Specht who discovers that kindness can only grow if you do the things to cultivate it, like a seed. The self-published book’s success (we sold over 15,000 copies) actually got more schools interested in having me come and speak.
About two years ago, I left my teaching position to speak at schools about the power of kindness. I developed programs for K-12 that solely uses the book and its characters to inspire children to spread the “seeds of kindness.” The end result of all the programs we offer is always the same: To inspire children to choose kindness and use their power to make a difference in someone else’s life.
As educators, both Samantha and I are well aware of the problem of bullying and its effects. I believe we are at a moment in history where we, as a society, have to step up and say that bullying is not acceptable at any level or any age. I have always been frustrated by the “Anti-Bullying” movement as it placed too much emphasis on the bully and how to deal with its effects without addressing ways to truly prevent it. When people call to book our program, I often get asked if we have an “anti-bullying” program and my answer is always, “No, we are a pro-kindness program that looks to stop bullying before it can start.
4) You also offer water safety programs. Why is this so important?
We offer the water safety shows because drowning remains the number one cause of accidental death of children aged one to four, and the number two overall cause of accidental death of all children up to the age of 14. The reality is that the U.S. is woefully behind other nations in drowning prevention and the statistics only reinforce this fact. Unfortunately, people are not aware of what they don’t know.
In our case, it was fatal for Rees. We thought we knew it all. We started all of our children in swim lessons at two years old (Rees was already signed up and set to begin in January of 2013.) We knew the pond was a potential hazard, so we had alarms on our doors. We had a gate around the backyard that was self-locking. We thought we did everything we could. It turns out that all it took to lose Rees was for supervision to break down between my friend and I as I prepared for Superstorm Sandy. I thought he was with my friend and my friend thought he was with me. The goal of our shows is to teach children as well as the adults that there are many layers to water safety and get them to recognize the dangers. Our goal is very simple: To teach children and their parents to “ReesSpecht” the water.
5) Where do your fundraising donations/purchases go?
We are happy to report that 100 percent of all our donations go to our charitable endeavors. Thankfully, the book sales and assembly programs have covered our administrative costs entirely. The programs/services that the foundation offers include:
- We have given out 19 college scholarships for students who have demonstrated a commitment to kindness and compassion
- The printing and distribution of the 490,000 kindness cards (we send out quantities of 5-10 completely free of charge, postage included)
- Our “Pay it Forward” program, which provides meals and sundries for families suffering through a tragedy/loss
- Teacher/Classroom grants
- ReesSpecht the Water school assembly programs and water safety awareness campaign (flyers, awareness campaign etc.)
- Our yearly holiday toy drive which has collected over 15,000 toys for families on Long Island that would have gone without any during the holidays.