Sandy Hook parents heal by keeping children's legacies alive

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Published December 13, 2013

| FoxNews.com

The bedroom of 6-year-old Jesse Lewis looks frozen in time, with small rubber ducks and action figures in a perfect line on his dresser and snow boots tucked into a shelf as he'd left them the day he was killed.

But Jesse, one of 26 people, including 20 children, whose life was taken by a gunman's bullets inside Sandy Hook Elementary School one year ago tomorrow, is far from gone – his influence on the world far-reaching through the educational foundation started in his memory, his mother said.

"He's missed every day," Scarlett Lewis told FoxNews.com inside the living room of her 18-century farmhouse, now a shrine of photographs and paintings of a beaming child who loved toy soldiers, storybooks and his black-and-white horse named Apache. "He had a lot of compassion."

Lewis – like many other parents of the Newtown victims – has channeled her grief and loss into creating an organization that champions causes close to her son. The "Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation" funds school programs to educate children on compassion, anger-management and bullying – “basic tools on how to deal with their emotions,” she said.

A few days after the Dec. 14, 2012, shooting, Lewis discovered three words scribbled in Jesse’s handwriting on a chalkboard in her kitchen: "nurturing, healing, love." Her mind also ruminated on her last memory of her son in which he used his finger to spell out the message, "I love you," on her frost-covered car the day before he died.

Twenty-year-old Adam Lanza shot his way into the school, gunning down the school principal before killing 20 first-graders and five other adults. Earlier, he had used his mother’s high-powered rifle to kill her in their nearby home before driving to the school with hundreds of rounds of ammunition. Lanza killed himself at the scene.

Jesse yelled to his classmates to "run" before Lanza shot and killed him inside his classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown – a heroic act that did not surprise his parents after they learned of it from investigators.

Though no motive was ever determined, Lewis believes Lanza’s rampage began with an "angry thought" that festered for years – and was likely unreported by the many people who encountered the quiet and withdrawn youth along the way.

"I picture him [Lanza] being a little boy with a lot of anger and no tools and no nurturing environment to deal with it," she said.

Lewis said she and her older son's work with victims of Rwanda’s genocide helped her to forgive Lanza. 

"It gave me perspective. If they’re able to forgive – if they can actually do it – then it is possible in my own situation," Lewis said. "It doesn’t mean you’re condoning what they did. It means that you’re cutting the cord to pain."

And she believes Jesse has forgiven as well.

"I absolutely believe that Adam Lanza was instantly forgiven," she said. "My hope is that he is experiencing the same kind of love that the children are now, in heaven. He might have had a little bit longer journey to get there, but I hope he has."

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Like Scarlett Lewis, the Rekos and Parker families have also directed their pain toward starting foundations as enduring legacies for their children killed in the shooting.

Jessica Rekos, a vivacious and bright 6-year-old, became fascinated with Orca whales after watching the entire series of "Free Willy" movies. She would pause each film and jot down notes in a journal, her parents said, storing her "research" in file folders in her bedroom. She was also a promising horseback rider – winning her first blue ribbon shortly before her death. 

"If Jessica were alive and I gave her 100 dollars and told her she could do whatever she wanted with it, she would say, 'Mom, I want to help whales and horses,'" Krista Rekos told FoxNews.com.

She and her husband, Richard, started the "Jessica Rekos Foundation" to raise money for whale research – specifically through supporting this year's Whale and Dolphin Conservation's internship program – as well as horseback riding lessons for children who cannot afford it.

"I have to follow my little girl's passions," Krista Rekos said, adding that some donations have also gone to the Newtown Public School district to improve security.

"Being able to continue Jessica's work is what allows us to get out of bed in the morning," she said. "We live every day for her."

As the Rekos family continues along their own path of healing, they are comforted by the many journal entries and little notes of affection their daughter left behind.  

"I found a different one every single day for two weeks after she died," her mother said. "We're still finding little pieces of paper in the corner of desks or under my nightstand that say, 'I love my Mom. I love my Dad.' And I find them when I need them most."

For Jessica’s father, his daughter's bedroom – unchanged since the day of the shooting – is a place of solace.

"Whenever I’m facing a difficult time, I like to go in there and sit at her little desk," he said.

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Robbie Parker, father of 6-year-old Emilie Parker, first toyed with the idea of a foundation in his daughter’s memory while lying in bed the night of the shooting. He recalled a former teacher of Emilie’s praising the girl before the family moved from New Mexico to Connecticut, telling her parents she wanted to know what would become of Emilie when she grew up.

"I remember her teacher saying that," he told FoxNews.com. "And I thought, 'We're supposed to make sure that she's still able to change the world as she's supposed to.'"

He and his wife, Alissa, founded "The Emilie Parker Art Connection" to fund art programs in schools and communities. The couple has also used donations to support the school safety advocacy group they co-founded as well as emergency response medical care for children in Guatemala. 

Emilie, a budding artist, "made everyone feel special," including the cashier ringing up the family’s groceries at the local Costco, her father said.

In an emotional video released Monday, Alissa Parker talks about her daughter's last project, collecting toys for children who didn’t have any. Parker says the box soon became a "painful reminder that there was this loss of one of the most giving and selfless people I’d ever met."

But in the weeks and months following the shooting, Parker says she was overwhelmed by acts of kindness that "lifted me."

"It was time to finish what she [Emilie] had wanted done," she said.

"People ask, 'But where was your God when this happened? Why didn’t he stop it?'" Parker says in the video. "He allows for us all to make our own choices – good and bad – because that's the only way good can be in us is if we freely choose it over all else."

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http://www.foxnews.com/us/2013/12/13/sandy-hook-parents-heal-by-keeping-children-legacies-alive/