grief, kindness

Hearts of Hope

Friends, it’s been a really tough week. 

Last Saturday, as I was putting the finishing touches on my Braille kindness rocks, I received the phone call no one ever wants to receive.

It was my friend, Amy, who teaches students with special needs at our local middle school. She’s also the teacher of my sweet backyard neighbor, Ashton, who was in her care for the past five years. Even before I answered her call, I already knew it was bad news. Tears welled up in my eyes before I could even say hello.

“It’s Ashton. She’s gone.”

The sob that erupted from my soul was loud and ugly, as my body shook in complete and utter anguish. Even now as I’m typing these words, the tears are back again, reminders that my heart is still raw and aching over the loss of this sweet girl.

16 years old.

Gone.

No. No. No.

I spent the rest of the weekend in a daze, the sorrow enveloping me like a cloud of darkness, no light shining through. Painting provided a brief solace, so I picked up my paintbrush and sat at the table, staring at the supplies that were never put away after Saturday morning’s devastating news.

Kindness rocks.

Ashton loved the color pink. In fact, she had her own fundraiser and Facebook Page dedicated to her favorite color: It Comes in Pink. I counted the extra rocks I had in my container and was shocked at the total.

16 rocks.

16 years.

Oh my.

That was my sign. I needed to paint Kindness rocks for Ashton. I pondered for a bit about what to create, what message to send out to the world, then it came to me.

Hope

Ashton’s sixteen years were filled with hope and promise of embracing the joys in each and every day. When her parents, Chris and Laurie, received the diagnosis of Ashton’s condition at nine months of age, they were told she probably wouldn’t live long enough to attend elementary school. Niemann-Pick Type C (NPC) disease is extremely rare with only 500 diagnosed cases in the world and no known cure.

And their precious firstborn had it.

In their heartbreak, they made the decision to live life with Ashton to its fullest. Nothing was taken for granted. They watched their precious daughter’s body slowly succumb to the limitations of this disease, and yet they still celebrated life with exuberance.

They went on vacations. Played in the snow. Rode in boats on the river and sat along the shore.

They built a playground in the backyard then added a handicap-accessible swing. They built a ramp off the side of their deck when steps became too much to manage. They replaced carpet with wood flooring and added handles to hold in their bathroom.

When Ashton started to wobble when she walked, she received leg braces, which of course came in pink. When she needed more stability, she received a walker until walking was too much of a challenge. When the time came to transition to a wheelchair, she had to have the one in pink.

Her heart radiated love to everyone she met. She had an incredible sense of humor and often got the giggles at the most inappropriate things. She was a treasure to anyone who ever had the pleasure of being in her presence.

To us, she was simply Ashton. We’ve spent the past twelve years sharing a backyard and I’ve been blessed to see this sweet girl grow up. Her younger sister, Emily, doted on her, their bond of sisterhood stronger than many siblings I know.

Despite the challenges that constantly came her way, Ashton’s determination and perseverance were unmistakable. She showed us all the true meaning of hope and unconditional love.

For Ashton’s rocks, I chose yellow as the background to represent her bright smile and the joy that radiated from the twinkling in her eyes. I painted one pink heart on each rock with the word “Hope” in white, then added a little bit of glitter inside the heart, because Ashton was always a sparkle to anyone’s day. On the back I added “For Ashton” with the date that she became healed and whole.

Sixteen kindness rocks.

Sixteen hearts of hope.


On Monday morning, as I was putting on my makeup, I couldn’t believe what I saw on my brush: one perfectly formed heart staring back at me.

I had to smile at the little Godwink I received, as my heart was still so heavy from Ashton’s passing. It was as if Ashton was sending me a hug straight from heaven.


On Wednesday afternoon following the graveside service, Laurie shared a story with me about how she had gone for a quick run to clear her mind and her digital watch beeped, displaying one lone heart.

No numbers.

No words.

Just one simple heart.


Today we shared in a Celebration of Life service and were reminded again and again of Ashton’s impact on this world in her short sixteen years. Ashton’s physical challenges never stopped her from giving the most precious gifts to others: hope and love.

After the service, we returned home and when time came for afternoon dismissal of school, I walked to the corner of our street, waiting to walk my son home from the bus stop. A car approached and it was Chris, Laurie, and Emily returning home from the service. They stopped and rolled down the window and chatted a bit, as we often do when we pass one another in the neighborhood.

As they drove away towards their house, I caught a glimpse of the sun peeking through the clouded skies above.

There was a heart in the middle of heaven.

And another.

And another.

I fumbled to open my phone and take a photo, the shapes dissipating as quickly as they formed. I watched the clouds shift and slide across the sky and felt the slightest breeze wrap around me.

I believe Ashton sent us her own hearts of hope right in the moment we needed them most.

Can you see the hearts in my photo?

Can you see the hearts in those you meet?

Look harder.

They’re there.

In honor of Ashton Friedl, the family has asked for donations to the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Fund (APMRF) at Notre Dame which is dedicated to finding a cure for Niemann-Pick Type C (NPC) disease. For more information, please visit https://parseghianfund.nd.edu/it-comes-in-pink.


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education, kindness

Dots of Joy and Kindness

It started with a simple dot.

My oldest son, Daniel, caught my attention this summer as he pointed to the Braille dots located on floor numbers inside of an elevator. “I know how to read that,” he said, his voice steady and confident. I laughed and reminded him that the numbers were shown on the buttons, too. “No, really, I can read it. I can read Braille.” He traced his fingers across the raised dots and a smile spread across his face. “That’s the number 3. See? It matches the letter “c” with these four dots in front of it.”

I turned to my son and stared in amazement. We had never discussed the Braille alphabet before, nor did we know anyone who read it. I asked him how he learned Braille and he shrugged his shoulders, replying nonchalantly, “I just taught myself.”

This summer as I was presenting my Passion for Kindness PD sessions to teachers in my district, I shared this story and was delighted to meet Debra Reames, who works directly with students with visual and hearing impairments. We had an instant connection, bubbling over with excitement in all the ways we can inspire our students with joy through kindness. Towards the end of our session, she showed me her Braille bracelet and even painted a JOY rock to add to my collection.

The next week my son and I received mail from Debra which included inspirational quotes, printed Braille alphabet cards, and our names typed out on Braille paper. My son was so excited to receive these acts of kindness!

On Saturday, September 15, 2018, also known as International Dot Day for Peter H. Reynolds’ fans, I decided to make my “one dot mark” by creating joyful kindness rocks in Braille to share with Debra and her students.

Using rocks I purchased at the Dollar Tree, a little bit of paint, and a lot of precision with a toothpick, I created four JOY rocks with raised Braille dots that I sealed with a thin layer of Mod Podge on top. Now her visually impaired students can feel joy as they read it, too! (I’m sending them to her on Monday… shhh, don’t tell!)

I had so much fun painting JOY rocks for Debra and her students, I created a few of my own #passionforkindness rocks to scatter around my community throughout the week. You never know when someone may need a little reminder of joy, love, and hope!

Peter H. Reynolds encourages us through his writing to “make your mark on the world.”  While making a difference takes a little bit of effort and courage, it isn’t hard and doesn’t have to be expensive. I try to make my mark through simple acts of kindness, but your mark might be making a meal, calling a friend, or playing a game with a loved one.

Make your mark with time.

Make your mark with joy.

Make your mark today.


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education, grief, reflection

On That Day

 

On that day, I opened the door to my third grade classroom having no idea that our country would be under attack within the hour.

On that day, I marked attendance, taking for granted that every child would be present that day and the next.

On that day, I watched as students unpacked their backpacks and got settled in, waiting for me to teach them lessons they needed to learn.

On that day, I discovered just how important it was to be their teacher.


They were seven and eight years old. They had no concept of terror other than the make-believe monsters that hid under their beds and the shadows that played tricks on them at night. They slept with their favorite stuffed animals and baby dolls and wrote stories about cats and dogs, flowers and friends.

Our day was blissfully normal in every way. In Tennessee, school had begun a few weeks before; we were still getting to know one another. A knock on my door changed everything.

“A plane just flew into the Twin Towers. It’s on TV, but don’t let your kids see.”

Minutes later, I took the students to their specials class, then raced back to my room to watch the events unfold in real-time horror.

Another plane.

Fire.

Smoke.

Collapse.

Chaos.

Shock.

Students returned to class and I had to continue teaching as if nothing had happened. How could I begin to explain that day when I didn’t even understand it myself?

All I could do was hug my students a little tighter, a little longer, reminding them how important they were to me. I told each and every student that I loved them.

It’s been 17 years since 9/11 and I remember it like it was yesterday.

And each year, I receive a message from one of those eight year olds who sat in my class that day.

“Hey, Mrs. Letter. I hope all is well for you. I just wanted to say that every year I remember that day and I remember the conversation we had on the reading mat in your room. I remember the questions we asked and the confusion we all had at what was happening and why those “bad guys” would do such a thing, etc. but I also remember feeling safe in your classroom. I always knew that as long as I was in your class (even from wasps… which you taught us how to ignore when they fly in the portable) and I knew I was loved. Pretty vivid memories for a third grader but that’s the impact you left on me and I thought I’d remind you!”

Some years the message sent is long; other years the message is short and sweet. But for one day of the year we are connected again, teacher and student, with a bond that will never be broken. I am reminded of the life-long impact we have on our students’ lives with our words and actions, even in those moments of unscripted conversations that are raw and real.

We keep our students safe.

We remind them they are loved.

We put on our battle armor and shield our students from a world that is complicated and cruel at times.

On that day, I decided evil would not win.

On that day, I discovered love was louder.


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education, kindness

The Kindness Teacher

This afternoon as I was standing in the checkout line of our local Food Lion grocery store, I heard a sweet voice call out my name.

“Mrs. Letter! Mrs. Letter!”

I turned my head to see a young girl grinning from ear to ear, her arms already outstretched for the hug she knew would come. I stepped to the side and embraced her; her delight in recognizing me almost overwhelming us both. Her two siblings came near, and I wrapped my arms around them as well.

“Mommy, this is Mrs. Letter. She was my kindness teacher!”

The mom smiled at her daughter, then smiled back at me as she said the most wonderful words I had heard all day.

“I know.”

She knows. 

Her mom knows my name.

She knows I am her daughter’s “kindness teacher.”

Maybe there have been discussions at the dinner table of the lessons we shared. Perhaps her daughter retold one of our kindness stories or maybe they did some acts of kindness together, sparked by our kindness challenges throughout the year.

Even though I have never met her mom, and don’t teach her child’s class on a regular basis, she knows who I am and what I’m all about.

That’s the power of teaching with passion. No matter your role or title, you have the power each and every day to impact the life of a child in a positive way. In fact, you can make such a difference that a child will remember your name long after you have touched their life.

Be you with every ounce of passion, love, and exuberance you can share. Because one day there might be a little girl who shouts your name from across a grocery store, introduces you to her mom, and completely makes your day.

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