I met Dr. Jeremy Richman and Nelba Marquez-Greene at a conference on July 22nd. They met in Newtown’s firehouse barely able to breathe as they awaited word about the fate of their children immediately following the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Twenty children and six educators slain. Were their children among the murdered? They were.
I served as the opening keynoter for Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) Project Aware conference attended by mental health clinicians, licensed marriage and family therapists (Nelba is one), local educators, and state department of education representatives from across the nation. I stayed to hear Nelba and Jeremy.
We would die for our children and grandchildren. “Theirs is the future, Lord. Take me.” No. Their children died first. They walk by empty bedrooms every morning as they try to put one foot in front of the other.
How to go on? They have, “…in spite of working with a broken heart,” as Nelba put it. She, a Puerto Rican and her husband, an African American, had moved from a rough neighborhood in Hartford, Connecticut to Newtown, “an undeniably safe place.” It wasn’t, as churches, military bases, businesses and schools aren’t. With a nation awash in guns, there are no safe places.
How DO they go on? That their children will not have died in vain, that their lives may save the lives of other children, each has launched a non-profit entity. Nelba’s “Ana Grace Project” named after her nine-year-old daughter, aims to find and “bring into the circle of love,” the outsiders, the isolated, the angry, the Adam Lanzas, murderer of their children. She works in schools throughout the nation, forging partnerships with educators, youth and families, stressing social emotional learning, inclusion, and the development of enduring child/adult relationships. www.anagraceproject.org.
Dr. Jeremy Richman, a scientist, created the Avielle Foundation, named after his daughter, dedicating it to explore the underpinnings of the brain that lead to malevolent behaviors. He explores the brain’s plasticity, its interface with the environment in efforts to find and help treat neuro-chemical seeds of violence – “brain health,” as he calls it. To Jeremy, the healthy brain strengthens the executive function (goal setting), regulates emotions, builds friendships, and recognizing emotions in others (empathy). His ultimate goal: “To foster communities where every member belongs and is a valuable member.” www.aviellefoundation.org.
Si Johnson, a member of the Tohono O’Odham Nation in southernmost Arizona, works with youth as director of the tribe’s Horse Camp. “Isolation is a killer,” he once told me. “Being outside the circle is death.”
Nelba the therapist and Jeremy the scientist take different routes into the issue of violence prevention but they share a core mission: help build empathetic children supported by caring adults with special attention to those on the outside of the circle, those who feel they do not belong.
I am awed by what they do. I have held major posts in state and federal governments. I have run non-profits small and large. But what I have done pales before what Nelba and Jeremy do. Each works with a broken heart, one on the ground in schools, the other in the neuro-chemical realm of brain science, each pledged to saving the lives of children, lives that Nelba and Jeremy’s daughters no longer have.