Michael and Rebecca with KidsToday one year ago, my life changed forever.  I experienced a loss that I could never have anticipated, planned for or even conceived of.  I lost my dear, sweet, barely 5-year-old son. April 14th, 2017, the world as I knew it, fell apart and I fell with it.  It’s hard for me to even remember the days that followed Charlie’s death. Everything became a blur very quickly and it would be several months before I could think beyond the moments he died or attempt to make it a day without living in his loss.  Grief has a way of doing that to you, encompassing your life and paralyzing your ability to move forward.

As the anniversary of Charlie’s death approaches, several people have asked how we plan to commemorate the date.  We have celebrated Halloween, Christmas, his birthday and all the other holidays; including him in each one, making sure that Charlie remains alive in our hearts and in our family.  However, this day is one I refuse to celebrate. I refuse to celebrate the loss. I cannot spend April 14th each year celebrating the loss of my precious son. It doesn’t feel right to me.  On this day, I was stripped of watching Charlie grow up, become an adult and making new memories with him. No, we will not commemorate this date. That is not to say that we will not acknowledge April 14th each year.  We will. We have just decided that April 14th will be the day that we reflect on the hope Charlie’s life has brought us, not in the loss we have endured.

A year ago today, I would have told you my world could not go on. I could not go back to work as a Reading Teacher in the school system, nor at the Children’s Hospital working as a Hospital School Teacher.  I year ago, I would have told you I would never cook again, or care if the dishes were cleaned or if the laundry got washed. A year ago, I would have said, “This is it. It will never get any better than this.” I will live in the loss of Charlie forever.  But here I am, doing the things I thought were not possible. I went back to work, teaching kindergarteners (the same grade Charlie would have been in) how to read, working at the hospital with children who have endured trauma and families who are experiencing their own grief.  I started doing the laundry again. And Michael will tell you, dishes piling up in the sink is again not an option in our house. The loss is still there, it will never be forgotten. Like Charlie, it will live on each and everyday in our hearts. But our perspective is different.  

We are choosing to live in the hope that Charlie has given us. The call to action to serve other families, living in conditions we cannot fathom, even though we have seen them with our own eyes.  Michael and I started Charlie’s Heart Foundation to lift families up, and through the process of its inaugural year, it has lifted us up. Charlie’s Heart Foundation has given us the ability to live in hope, not in loss.  

Ten years ago, I traveled to Ethiopia and spent a summer between school terms volunteering in orphanages, hospitals and schools in the city’s capital.  I fell in love with the people, because of their joy despite their circumstances. I was humbled by my experience that summer and I promised myself that some way, somehow, I would come back to that country and serve the amazing people there.  Then as usual, life happened. I met Michael, we had a whirlwind courtship and marriage and before I knew it, Charlie was born. As our family grew, the calling to serve others and go back to Ethiopia still remained in my heart. I never knew the “spark” to return to Ethiopia would be the loss of our first child.  

And here we are, one year since Charlie’s death and two trips later to Ethiopia preparing for our first major event as Charlie’s Heart Foundation, Charlie’s Carnival on April 21st.  It is has taken a village to get us to this point. Ok, so maybe more like a city… We have had so many neighbors and friends say yes to our vision and ask how they could help. Their support has lifted us out of the loss and helped us to live in hope.

We have already committed to a three-year partnership with Addis Jemari, a non-profit that has a home for orphaned and vulnerable girls but also a vision to lift families out of poverty so they can thrive and support themselves.  As Charlie’s Heart Foundation, we want to help with that mission. Giving families the tools and support to keep their children is what Addis Jemari’s Empowerment Program is all about. Our hearts have also been opened to another potential partnership with A Glimmer of Hope, an organization that works in rural Ethiopia to help combat the clean water crisis that is plaguing the country.  It is our hope that we can fund a well project in the upcoming year.

Everyday the loss of our son is ever present.  That will never go away. But hope has come from that loss. We will live each day honoring our son, doing the work we know his precious heart would have done.  We will empower children and families suppressed by poverty and inequity to rise up and shine. Our goals for Charlie’s Heart Foundation are lofty. But for me, serving Ethiopia is mostly about returning to the country where I learned, over ten years ago, to find joy in spite of circumstance and to live in hope in spite of loss.