By Erica Jackson Curran ’07
Richard Edwin-Ehmer Specht, known to his family as Rees, was supposed to start swimming lessons in the winter of 2012. Growing up on Long Island with a pond in the backyard, it was natural that the toddler should learn to swim.
But in October 2012, the unthinkable happened. Rees, just 22 months old, wandered away from the house and drowned in the backyard pond.
In the days after the tragedy, Rees’ father, Richard Specht ’97, clung to the counsel of a relative who’d lost two children of her own. Today, he gives the same advice to parents who have suffered a loss.
“There are two outcomes possible for a parent who loses a child,” Specht tells them. “They can either find themselves swallowed up by the never-ending sorrow, or they can transcend it.
Those who transcend it have to find a way to channel the love they have for that child into something positive.”
For Specht and his wife, Samantha, that meant creating the ReesSpecht Life foundation in honor of their son.
A few months after the accident, they came up with the idea of pay-it-forward cards bearing an illustrated image of Rees and a brief message encouraging kindness. Today, more than 240,000 of the cards have been shared worldwide.
Recipients have perpetuated acts of kindness small and great – from buying coffee for the person behind them in line to leaving a $3,000 tip at a restaurant.
The cards were only the beginning.
The Spechts created a scholarship in the school district where they both taught, and it has since expanded to multiple school districts on Long Island. Last year they partnered with the Long Island Drowning Prevention Task Force to help teach children water safety, and their most recent initiative, “Pay It Foodward,” will help coordinate donations of food to families in need.
In the future, Specht hopes to expand the scholarships to even more schools and one day open a camp for children who, like his own three daughters, have lost a sibling. “I really want to help start a groundswell for people to take a step back and think about what is really important in life,” he says.
Specht majored in biology but credits his diverse studies at Mary Washington with preparing him to run the foundation, which he now does full time.
“Mary Washington remains the cornerstone of everything I have accomplished regarding the foundation,” he said. “I credit the small classes and close relationships I formed at Mary Washington with providing me the encouragement and belief in myself that is necessary if you want to achieve your dreams.”