“Stories are light.
Light is precious in a world so dark.”Kate DiCamillo
Not every life story can accurately be measured in length.
When I got the news that Jenn and Abay were gone, I immediately called Stephen back and said, “I’m coming to you. I’m coming to you right now.” Then I drove twenty miles I don’t remember trying to wrap my head around this completely devastating and wholly unacceptable information.
When you are processing trauma, one of the most challenging things is to integrate the fact of it. This thing, whatever it is, is now a fact of your life. If you do a ton of work and are fortunate, it becomes just that. A fact. Not the fact. Not the defining thing. That’s what I would tell a client. It sounds good. I don’t know, though. I just don’t know anymore. Some facts are simply bigger than other facts. Some facts take up more space.
Jennifer and Abaynesh lived big lives. Jennifer had an innate sense of adventure and thought globally while being deeply connected to the community right in front of her. She instilled those same traits and values in her beloved daughter.
When you were talking to Jenn, you felt as though there was no place she’d rather be and nothing she’d rather be doing. Some people are fascinating. She was. She led an interesting life and had done spectacular things. What was so special about her, though, was that she was fascinated. She was eternally curious and fully present. She wasn’t multi-tasking or checking her phone. Talking to her was like feeling the sun on your face. People basked in her attention. The only thing that could divert her focus was Abay. Abay always came first.
Abay was smart and funny and compassionate and exquisite. A hopping, giggling, sparkler of a kid. Last Thanksgiving, we were all walking through a Dickens’ Christmas display in Philadelphia and I was getting such a kick out of watching people watch her. She was walking in front of me with her cousin holding his hand and complete strangers’ faces would light up at the sight of them as though they’d been given a gift, mostly because they had. We laughed so much that trip watching the teenage boys and girls do her bidding and be happy doing it. She had that magic.
As I listened to the eulogies at the memorial service it struck me how much I was learning about them both. People they loved and who loved them offered up story after story. Each one a gift. Jennifer and Abaynesh lived interesting, connected, impactful lives. They were denied the opportunity to live the full length of their lives. The rage that wells up when I think about what has been taken is overwhelming. The thing is, though, they lived the width and the breadth of their lives. They lived fully. They loved big. They touched so many people’s lives in countless ways during their limited days. This world is infinitely better and brighter because they were in it.
The family has chosen to set up funds in each of their names.
Jenn’s professional life was dedicated to helping women and girls in crisis get the healthcare they need. She was a leader, an activist, and a tireless advocate. The money raised by the Jennifer Schlecht Memorial Fund, which has been set up at the United Nations Foundation, will continue her work. Jennifer will continue to be what she has always been: a champion for women and girls; someone who gravitated toward the margins, who looked to see who was excluded, who was overlooked and underserved – refugees, those living in poverty and strife.
Abay lived much of her life in the little school she loved so well. It’s unimaginable that we will not get to see what she could have become, how all that brimming potential would have manifested itself in the world. The reality is she would likely have become exactly what she was in her pre-school community, writ large. Someone who sought out the struggling and disconnected and brought them into the fold. A learner and a leader. One of the speakers at the memorial said something to the effect that many children at Abay’s school would have called her their best friend – and they’d all have been right. Abaynesh will continue to be what she has always been: a girl who extended her hand to those who might otherwise have been left behind and brought them along with her.
Just like her mom.
Money raised in Abay’s name will be used to help children in Harlem attend her beloved Montessori school, The O’Gorman Garden. Please click here to learn more about the Abaynesh Memorial Fund.
Jennifer and Abaynesh were special. Remarkable, really. That the funds set up in their names have everything to do with how they lived is as it should be. The way they moved through the world is and must be far more important than how they left it. The light they brought into the world cannot be vanquished by the darkness that took them out of it. We cannot allow that. Some facts are bigger than other facts. The facts of their goodness and love and passion are bigger. They have to be.
There will never not be a hole in the world. It’s obscene that they are gone. The firsts will come and go – holidays, birthdays, weddings- and the fact that they will not be physically here with their family can never be made right.
But because Jennifer was here, women and girls will continue to be helped and fought for and supported. Her work, which was missional, will continue.
Because Abaynesh was here, children who would not have otherwise had access to a quality early-childhood education will skip through the same halls she did.
Their lives mattered. Not just to the people who loved them, but to the world. They are gone and we are heartbroken, but their stories are not over. Far from it. Their stories are alive and still moving through the world, connecting people, teaching people, making sure no one falls through the cracks. The ripple effect of their goodness and their impact on others will go on for generations.
The memorial service honoring their lives was beautiful and terrible. Story after story of their generosity and empathy, of Jenn’s passion for her work and Abay’s inquisitive nature. It was easy to see where Abay learned how to be a friend, listening to Jenn’s closest friends speak eloquently of walking through this life cloaked in her love. I walked away from that day wanting to live braver. Better. Bigger. I will carry them both in my heart for the rest of my life.
At the conclusion of the memorial service, hundreds upon hundreds of people filed in silence touching tapered matches to votive candles to the sound of a children’s choir singing This Little Light of Mine. Even now, in these terrible moments without them, Jenn and Abay are making things brighter.
Jennifer and Abaynesh were here. We loved them. We are better for having spent some time in their light and having been a part of their story – a story that is still illuminating the darkness.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Jennifer and Abaynesh.
Say their names out loud today, like a prayer.
If you are interested in helping Jenn’s and Abay’s stories continue, please consider donating to the memorial funds established in their names.
The Jennifer Schlecht Memorial Fund is dedicated to “helping to advance Jennifer’s vision of ensuring rights, access, and dignity for all women and girls, no matter where they live.” To donate, please click here
The Abaynesh Memorial Fund will provide “scholarship support to Harlem families who cannot otherwise afford the high-quality early education The O’Gorman Garden provides.” To donate, please click here.