Often, during our darkest hour, it’s hard to see the good in anything or anyone. But when one family lost their young son, it was the compassion of those around them that got them through. So now they’re on a mission to cultivate kindness around the world, and in 2015 they had the most encouraging sign that their word was spreading.
In October 2012 science teacher Richard Specht, his wife Samantha and their four children – including their 22-month-old son Richard – were living in Sound Beach, New York. They were a happy, family much like any other. That is, until tragedy stuck.
The Spechts had been preparing their home for Hurricane Sandy, which was due to strike at any moment. “My job that day was to put away our lawn furniture,” Richard Specht senior recalled. And while he was attending to his chores, he asked a friend to look after Richard junior, who was usually known as Rees.
However, after coming in from the yard, Specht saw that his friend was sat watching the TV. He was also shocked to discover that Rees was nowhere to be seen. In fact, it seemed that there had been confused communication between the two men, and neither of them had been watching the toddler.
Heartbreakingly, the unattended Rees had wandered out into the back yard where he drowned in the family’s pond. Explaining his son’s accident to Yahoo Parenting, Specht said, “It happened two days before Hurricane Sandy. Then we went through the storm and lost our power for two weeks and it was a nightmare on top of a nightmare.”
Touchingly, in such tough circumstances, the local community rallied around the Spechts. Because the power outage had left them unable to contact their family out of state, their neighbors and friends became a surrogate family. In fact, they brought the family food and looked out for them while they attempted to piece their lives back together.
Of course, the pond was covered over. “We had people coming from all over to help us. A landscaping company came and redid our yard and wouldn’t take any payment from us, friends and family brought food and wouldn’t let us pay them back,” Specht recalled. “So we decided to pay people back anonymously. If we couldn’t pay it back we’d pay it forward.”
And that’s when the family decided to set up the ReesSpecht Life Foundation. Indeed, it is actually inspired by their neighbors’ selflessness in their hour of need. For instance, the non-profit aims to “remind people [of] the importance of community, compassion and respect.” The Spechts do this mainly through the use of their “ReesSpecht Life Cards.”
The cards are based on the “pay-it-forward” concept. So, people are encouraged to hand one over whenever they commit a kind act. The idea is for the card to be passed along from person to person, therefore creating a chain reaction of compassion. According to the ReesSpecht Life Foundation, the charity has so far distributed around 390,000 cards.
Speaking about the cards, which each feature a cartoon of Rees riding a tractor, his mom Samantha told Today, “It’s nice that his face is out there. People are doing kind acts in his name… it’s fulfilling.” Her husband agreed, adding that the scheme helps keep Rees alive “in spirit.”
So for the next three years, Rees’ name was spread all around the country in the name of kindness. Then, in April 2015, the Spechts were left speechless by what may have been the biggest gesture in honor of their son to date. And it all began with a waitress in New York City.
Explaining to Yahoo Parenting, Specht said, “I got an email from this young lady… with a photo attached, and I couldn’t believe it. My mouth hit the floor.” It revealed how the waitress had been left an incredible tip from a customer who wanted to spread the word about the ReesSpecht Life Foundation. “I started crying,” continued Specht. “I looked at one of Rees’s pictures and I talked to him and I said, ‘I can’t believe you inspired this.’ It was a surreal moment.”
It turned out that the waitress had been given a massive $3,000 tip on a relatively small $43.50 check. Interestingly, the tip was from an anonymous young man, who gave the lucky server just three conditions. In a note accompanying the tip, the mystery man wrote, “Thank you for your kindness and humility.”
Continuing, he wrote, “My teacher in middle school had such a difficult experience a few years ago which has sparked me to do this. My only requirements are: 1) Go to ReesSpechtLife.com and learn. 2) Don’t let ‘Pay it forward’ end with you. 3) Since it’s about the idea and not about you, or me, if you decide to share this, don’t use either of our names!”
“Thank you for being around for all of my shows on and off Broadway,” he wrote, finishing the note. “I hope that someday someone gives as much love and happiness into the world as you do.” Understandably, the waitress was so moved that she felt compelled to reach out to the Specht family.
And after seeing the name on the check, Specht in turn contacted the man. After all, the kind stranger had been a former student of his a decade before. And although the pair hadn’t been in contact since, the teacher wasn’t surprised by his student’s kindness. Furthermore, it turned out that the tipper had been quite successful and now worked as a performer on Broadway.
“This was a kid who always hung out in my classroom,” Specht said. “He was that kid who was always helping out other kids, so it didn’t surprise me who it was. I just didn’t realize how successful he’s been.” Consequently, the teacher felt the need to reconnect with his former student, and so Specht looked him up on Facebook.
“I just said, ‘Thank you. I can’t believe you did this,’” Specht revealed. “He was very humble about it and said, ‘This was something I felt the need to do. I wanted to do something nice and I had it in my power to do something nice, so I did it.’”
Specht continued, “I didn’t know what to say other than ‘thank you.’ But I did say to him, ‘The single most important thing you did was put a smile on my wife’s face.’ When you lose a child you always carry that pain, and she had that smile that I want to see all the time. I was just so happy to see it.”
In October 2016 Specht marked the four-year anniversary of Rees’ death with a post on the ReesSpecht Life Foundation website. “Never let anyone tell you that you don’t matter,” he wrote. “We are, each of us, a difference maker. We are still here, ready to make even more of a difference, one little Rees’ piece at a time.” And, while they’ll never get over Rees’ death, it’s the Specht family’s desire to make the world a kinder place that drives them forward.