by Staff Writer L.M. Browning
This article is featured in the Autumn 2015 issue of The Wayfarer (Vol 4 Issue 2)
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On December 14, 2012, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, tragedy struck. That morning, 20 children and 6 adult staff members were taken by the violent acts of a mentally disturbed gunman. Among those lost, was Ana Márquez-Greene (Ana Grace), beloved daughter of Nelba Márquez-Greene and Jimmy Greene.
Nelba: Ana Grace was a “prayed for before she was born” child. Like her brother, her birth was anticipated not only by her mom and dad, but by hundreds of people who loved her before her arrival. She was a perfect and precious gift to our family and the completion of our circle of love. Her love of God and people made her the kind of child that could connect with just about anyone. I was born in Puerto Rico. Ana’s dad is African American. We were fortunate enough to be able to provide Ana with a life that was incredibly diverse. Her last three years were spent in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Everywhere she went, she could connect with others. This occurred when she was the only little brown girl in a room or surrounded by people who looked exactly like her. She embodied the power of connection. She didn’t walk, she danced—ballet, modern, you name it. She didn’t talk, she sang. And it was beautiful. Her absence leaves a gaping hole in the souls of all of those who knew her. Ana Grace taught us greatly about love and the power of community.
She was also incredibly determined. Not too long after we moved here and not too long before the shooting, my neighbor had a tag sale. After rummaging through a few of the items she gifted each of my children kites. Some time later, Ana was determined to fly that thing. She did not understand (no matter how clearly explained) that flying a kite required wind. I thought she didn’t understand, but really it was that my explanation did not matter. She was going to fly her kite. At some point later on that windless autumn day I caught a glimpse of a flying kite! I could not believe my eyes. She’d tied her kite to her brother’s bike, and convinced him to ride faster and faster until that thing took off behind him. I learned that day: don’t underestimate Ana. . . or the power of sibling teamwork.
Leslie: Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” In the wake of the tragedy, how did you stop the hate from defining you? How are you coming to terms?
Nelba: A lot of how we responded after the shooting had to do with who we were and what we stood for before the shooting. My husband and I both come from large families and deep communities of faith. We have also both faced traumas in childhood. Resilience runs in us through the blood of our ancestors. We were taught to work hard, have faith and trust God through all of it. These learnings were tested in the firehouse on December 14th, 2012. The “firehouse” would come to define who we were in the face of disaster. And it doesn’t matter who you are, you will ultimately have your own “firehouse” moment. Your firehouse may be a divorce, job loss, family fracture, illness, addiction, etc. Your firehouse moment will influence you, shape you, rearrange you . . . perhaps even break you. But it does not ultimately have to define who you are. You get to define who you are. And while we could not control what happened to our family, we could absolutely control how we responded. And so we did that. By grace. Not only for ourselves and for Ana’s memory, but mostly for our son. He was only eight. Had we, as his parents, allowed our hearts to be filled with hate in that moment, what kind of message would that have sent? We could not do it to him. As much as we were absolutely destroyed, we knew we had to let the love and light in. The love and the light were our survival. We find great comfort in our faith, and in our loving diverse communities of support. Our message was born from this, “LOVE WINS.”
Our professional work influenced us too. As a licensed marriage and family therapist, I was already aware of our broken mental health system and the need for compassionate response. So my outlet became working in mental health and community health advocacy. This certainly does not mean to directly link mental illness with people who commit violence. We all know that sufferers of mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence. I knew it would be a moment in history, however, when everyone would be paying attention to our response. We thought that conversations that framed the shooter as a “monster” would deflect from the reality that we live in a world where people are suffering, often in isolation, and if we do not ease this suffering and isolation early or learn to ameliorate it, we will see an increased number of mass shootings and other acts of violence.
Ana’s dad, Jimmy, is a jazz musician, educator and composer. We met President Obama for the first time two days after the shooting. I remember Jimmy looked him right in the eye and said, “We need to get back to the things that unify us. The things that bring us together and draw people closer. Things of beauty and love . . . things that humanize us”. This desperate cry from a Dad became the idea that would later give birth to Jimmy’s album, “Beautiful Life”. We “came to terms” very differently: I went to advocate in Washington. Jimmy made beautiful music while going to work as a professor at Western Connecticut State University. We both took care of, Isaiah. We both looked for light, meaning, and purpose in every step.
Jimmy, Isaiah and I spent every moment of every day existing somewhere on a continuum between “overwhelmed” and “overcoming”. There is no way to describe the amount of strength it takes to get up in the morning and live when you have lost a child or sister like this. And yet, we worked to ensure love winning. And we still do.
Leslie: You started a foundation to honor your daughter’s memory. Tell me, how do you use the Ana Grace Project to help chart the way for change?
Nelba: Did you know that early exposure to violence can actually change the structure of the brain? And not only can it change the structure of the brain, early exposure to trauma of any kind can predispose our children to life long health complications such as hypertension, obesity, cardiac issues and mental illness to name a few.
If we truly care about our children and our future, we will care about reducing violence and social isolation, because our children are suffering. We will also care about having compassionate responses in every community. Not just Sandy Hook. When a child is lost to gun violence in Bridgeport, we should care if someone has sent out a trauma team. We should care about the impact of an empty desk in our schools from gun violence- regardless of the zip code. The mission of The Ana Grace Project is to promote love, community, and connection for every child and family. The idea is that by providing more connected well-resourced communities, we can reduce violence and leave a healthier world. It also aims to draw attention to the simple, every day things we can do to build resilience.
Our professional development initiative connects helpers with world class experts in the fields of trauma, mentoring, grief, traumatic bereavement, collaborative problem solving, diversity, self-care, etc. Our first conference in 2013 attracted 500 participants. These included teachers, government staff, parole officers, direct care workers, therapists, doctors, etc. Our next conference will be held in December of 2015. The Love Wins Mental Health Conference will be held this year on December 3rd at Western CT State University. Our keynote is Bruce Perry, MD, Ph.D, Senior Fellow of The Child Trauma Academy and author of The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog.
Our partner schools initiative has adopted two very different learning communities! One, an arts based magnet school bearing Ana’s name in a suburban setting and the other a public elementary school in an urban environment. Together, we work to identify school goals and needs and offer fundraising support. Just this year, we were able to provide each school with several thousand dollars to support staff identified needs! Over $16, 000 was raised, and one of our schools was awarded a $110K renewal grant for a family resource center!
Day in and day out. At the Ana Grace Project, we remind teachers to say, “We love you. We are going to teach you but we are also gonna love you. You can be safe.” We remind administrators to allow teachers the time to do that. We have initiatives that promote the teaching of self regulation, empathy through music and general classroom techniques. We are not helpless. There is a whole lot we can do. But we have to work together. Increasing social networks with healthy adult/child relationships can radically reduce the impact of trauma and violence.
So how we chart change at The Ana Grace Project? We remember the little voices. Jimmy wrote our project mission in the following song he composed, which can be found on Beautiful Life.
Little voices calling
Little voices laughing
Little voices singing
All those precious little voices
Brightening our day
Stealing our hearts
Shaping our lives
In the blink of an eye, they’re gone.
Now there’s just silence
Where those little voices used to be
Now it’s up to you
It’s up to me
Will you make the choice and be a voice?
Will you walk humbly, show mercy and love your neighbor?
Will you LOVE your neighbor?
Not fear the neighbor who looks different than you
Or hurt the neighbor who thinks differently than you do
But will you LOVE your neighbor?
Will you love yourself?
Will you teach a child today?
Will you be your brother’s keeper?
Will you make someone smile?
Will you do all you can
To love, to forgive, to include
So that the millions of little voices who are still here
To brighten our days
Steal our hearts
And shape our lives
Can grow tall and strong
To learn from us how to forgive and love
To learn from us how to help and to include
And eventually, one day,
Become the big, confident voices
That will change our world
And make it better than it is today
Leslie: What advice do you have for people who are in despair about the current state of the world?
Nelba: I would ask your readers to practice compassion. Be kind to yourself. Life is really, really hard. And yet despair disconnects us from our own power and dims our light. I find when I am feeling discouraged, the following helps me realign myself:
1) Connecting to my body, identifying what it needs (Rest? Time for grieving? Sunshine? Physical activity?)
2) Connecting to others (identifying a tribe to journey with).
3) Connecting to the spirit (for us, our faith in Jesus Christ and hope of heaven allows us to find a little hope on days that do not feel so hopeful).
A few weeks before the shooting, I was having a bit of a despair moment myself. Something to do with my then-job. As I snuggled in bed with Ana Grace, she looked at me and said, “Don’t let them suck your fun circuits dry, mom.” So that’s what I would tell your readers. Don’t let anyone or anything ever suck your fun circuits dry.
Leslie: Where can our readers learn more about Ana Grace and your work?
Your readers can visit our website at: www.anagraceproject.org
Follow us on Twitter: @anagraceproject
Follow us on our Facebook page at The Ana Grace Project.
To follow Jimmy Greene: www.jimmygreene.com
On Twitter: @Jimmygreene
To purchase Beautiful Life, you can do so on iTunes, Amazon or Mack Avenue records.
Leslie: Lastly and most importantly, how can we help? How can our readers boost your efforts?
Nelba: That’s easy: Funding, Prayer/Meditation and volunteers. Doing good work takes time and money. We are always looking for corporate and individual sponsors. We have an upcoming “Jacques and Jazz” event on October 3rd that might be of particular interest to your readers. Jacques Pepin and Jimmy will be hosting an evening of music and food at the brand new Visual and Performing Arts Center at Western Connecticut State University. It will smell good, taste good, sound good, and DO GOOD!
Our mental health Love Wins conference (described in the interview) on December 2 and 3rd in Newtown and Danbury CT also seeks corporate and individual sponsors. We are expecting over 400 participants.
We are regularly looking for volunteers and financial supporters for our partner schools initiative. Specific, on-going needs always include: 1) musical instruments (especially string) 2) ballet shoes 3) tap shoes 4) gift cards 5) backpacks 6) books 7) older kids toys (5th grade).
We are specifically looking to find funding for a field trip to a local college in the 2016 school year for Chamberlain school. Many of our scholars have never stepped foot on a college campus. We are also looking for funding to send our volunteer Love Wins teachers to trainings and professional development opportunities. Interested persons should email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org