Reviewed by Rita J. Egan
When Richard Specht lost his son Richard Edwin-Ehmer (Rees) in a tragic drowning accident in 2012, he asked his aunt for advice on how to deal with the insurmountable pain. Having lost two children of her own, she told him he could let the pain consume him, or he could transcend it and find something to keep the darkness at bay. When he and his wife Samantha discovered that those who offered help during their time of need wouldn’t allow the couple to do anything in return for them, the Spechts decided to take the aunt’s advice to heart.
The couple began performing small acts of kindness for others and set out on a mission to honor their son by making the world a better place. Their efforts soon turned into the ReesSpecht Life Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes the importance of compassion and respect. The foundation has become known for its ReesSpecht Life cards that are used by those who perform random acts of kindness to pass on to the receiver in hopes that they will turn around and also carry out a kind act.
The success of the foundation inspired Richard to leave teaching in 2015 and travel to schools with his presentation Cultivate Kindness. His hope is to teach youngsters the importance of compassion and deliver an important anti-bullying message to them as well.
When talking to children in grades K to 2, he uses the first book he has written, “A Little Rees Specht Cultivates Kindness.” Specht said he encountered many road blocks when he first approached publishers, but he eventually self-published it in 2014. The result of his determination is the heartwarming story of a little boy who performs one kind act that plants a seed that cultivates a chain reaction of compassion in his community. Complemented with vibrant illustrations by Adam D. Smith, the book is one that will teach children a valuable lesson in a delightful way and even inspire adults to stop and lend a helping hand.
To date the book, which is sold exclusively through the foundation, has sold over 10,000 copies and all proceeds go to fund the nonprofit’s scholarship fund. Recently, Specht answered a few questions about the book via email.
The main character in “A Little Rees Specht Cultivates Kindness” is based on your son who died tragically. How do you describe Rees to people?
This is a tough question because we only had 22 months with Rees. What 22-month-old isn’t sweet, loving, mischievous and full of energy? Rees was all of these things with every new day revealing a little more about him to us. When I wrote the book, I took those qualities I saw in him and tried to project what I felt Rees would be when he reached the age of the character in my book. The Rees in the book is the manifestation of the little boy I always envisioned him to be.
The book is an extension of your ReesSpecht Life movement. What does your organization do and how did it start?
The formation of the ReesSpecht Life Foundation is very similar to the concept of the book: It started with a little idea, a seed that kept growing with each kind act my family and I received in the wake of Rees’ death. My wife and I wanted to repay those acts of kindness, and no one would let us. We felt this obligation to do more than simply say “thank you” and grew frustrated that no one would let us pay them back. So, instead of paying people back, we decided to “pay it forward.”
The idea was to do 500 random acts of kindness and give each recipient a “ReesSpecht Life” card that had Rees’ caricature on the front and a little about his story on the back. We didn’t expect that once people received the cards they would want their own. Before we knew it, people were ordering cards from us, and we very quickly went through those 500 cards. That was almost four years ago.
Today, we have distributed 395,000 cards to every continent on Earth. In addition to the cards, the foundation now provides $1,000 scholarships for graduating high school seniors who show a commitment to kindness, grants for teachers to incorporate kindness into their lessons, meals and sundries for families suffering hardship, and we perform school assemblies to grades K to 12 to remind students of the importance of kindness.
What made you decide to write the book, and how would you describe it to those who haven’t read it yet?
Believe it or not, the idea for the story actually came about because of a problem we had with our original logo for the foundation. The first 20,000 cards we printed had a picture of Rees dressed like Superman on the front. We were informed that using the image of Superman, regardless of who was in the costume, was a trademark infringement and could cause legal issues. We were devastated by this, and I struggled with how I could come up with a new logo that so perfectly fit our mission like the “Superman Rees” picture did. Then, out of the blue, the idea hit me: Rees loved tractors. It was one of the very few words he could use, and every time he saw one he would get excited and yell out “TRAKTA!!!” So, I realized that should be the focus.
The new logo was developed with Rees riding a tractor called Trakta, and the back-story just flowed from there. Rees, driving on Trakta, would cultivate kindness just like a farmer cultivates his crop. People responded so positively to the new logo that I realized there was something more there and I wrote the outline of a story focusing on Rees who discovers that kindness, just like the seeds he plants, can only grow if you do the things necessary to cultivate it. The book takes this idea that every kind act we do helps that “seed of kindness” grow. As the story progresses, we witness each kind act causing that seed to grow.
You use the book in your K to 2 presentations. What kind of feedback have you gotten from the children about the book?
The book is the backbone of our K to 2 presentations. I actually learned how to do 2D animation and developed an animated version of the book with sound effects that I use. When I present it, the children in the audience get to follow along as each kind act helps the seed of kindness to grow. There is nothing like hearing 200 5- to 8-year-olds exclaiming in unison, “grow seed grow!” Children seem to love it as they get to see that seed grow with each kind act.
In the book, Rees encounters other children. Are they based on people that were in his life?
Actually, the children in the book are indeed based off of real children, but they are not children Rees knew in his lifetime — but I hope he knows them now. All of the children in the book are actually based off the real life child-angels from parents who shared our pain and helped us through this difficult journey. Their particular stories in the book are actually based on their real life personalities and interests. For instance, the reason Kaylee is dressed similar to Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz” is because that was her favorite movie. The same holds true for each of the children in the book.
Is this your first book? How long did it take to develop?
Yes, this is the first book I have ever written. I actually wrote the outline for the story over the course of several nights while on a family vacation in Berlin, Germany. When we got home, I started writing the actual book right away. It took me about two months to get the story completed. Since I couldn’t draw, I wrote the book more like a novel, describing every scene as well as the dialogue. Once that was completed, I handed off the book to my illustrator Adam, who took my descriptions and turned them into the pictures you see in the book. All in all, the process took about 10 months from concept to our first printed copy.
Do you plan to write any more books in the future?
Originally, I had no concrete plans for any sequels. That changed when I got a call from a pair of Hollywood producers who got a copy of the book and asked me if I was interested in turning the ideas from the book into an animated series. They asked me if I had ideas for further stories, and I told them, “Of course!” They asked me if I could send them those ideas, and I got right to work developing a series of stories that build on the original premise of the first book.
Before I knew it, I had around 14 stories that would serve as the outline for the TV series, as well as my books. As of now, I have two more books completely written, and I am getting ready to send them to Adam for illustration. In addition to those two books, I just completed the script for the pilot episode of the TV series, which is its own, stand-alone, story.
For more information about “A Little Rees Specht Cultivates Kindness,” the ReesSpecht Life Foundation, and its school programs, visit www.reesspechtlife.com or www.cultivatekindness.org.