Jesse Lewis had just witnessed his teacher getting shot in the hallway of the first grade classrooms of Sandy Hook Elementary School and saw the gunman pausing to reload.
“Run!” he yelled to the kids who could hear him. The gunman looked up and fired, hitting Jesse on the head. The six-year-old crumpled to the floor.
“When I heard he used his last few seconds on earth to try to save his friends, I was not surprised,” Jesse’s mother Scarlett Lewis said. “I am so incredibly proud of him.”
Jesse was one of 20 children and six adults killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newton, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012 after a man broke in and began firing an automatic weapon at random.
In Jesse’s classroom, a total of 11 students survived, including some who ran past the gunman when he stopped to reload. The teacher, Victoria Soto, died with Jesse.
In the adjacent classroom, only one child survived. The teacher there, Lauren Rousseau, was also killed.
Scarlett Lewis said several people emerged as heroes that day, but her understanding is that some of the survivors ran because of what her son did to help them. Police and first responders have been quoted as saying that Jesse’s heroic act saved nine kids from his class.
Scarlett has since dedicated herself to the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation, which promotes ways for communities to “choose love over anger, gratitude over entitlement, and forgiveness and compassion over bitterness.”
The foundation was inspired by a message that Jesse had left on their kitchen chalkboard with the words “nurturing,” ”healing” and love.”
Scarlett was also encouraged by the thousands of letters she received from children, parents and other concerned adults in the weeks and months after the shooting. One letter, in particular, that stood out came from a professor who explained what he learned over two decades of studying school shootings.
“I used to carry the letter around with me everywhere I went,” Scarlett said. “It said that, after all these years of research, he had summed it up that if an individual or a child received 15 minutes of a caring adult being present with them, really present in the moment and really caring about that child, and that child felt it, that that child would be OK. I love that because I think that I’ve come to the same conclusion.”
Jesse’s foundation of love, spread to the classrooms of the world, has reached over 3 million people in 120 countries.
Scarlett’s travels for the foundation have taken her from India to Hawaii and other far-flung places. In photos she shared from a stop in a class, Scarlett stands at the back of a classroom filled with nearly two dozen students, their hands stretched toward the camera with peace signs and fingers curled into the shapes of hearts.