On Oct. 27, Rich Specht spent the day preparing for the impending superstorm Sandy, storing lawn furniture and securing his yard in Sound Beach.
At about 4:30 p.m., he found his 22-month-old son, Richie -- also called Rees -- playing with a collectible miniature truck in the driveway under the supervision of a close friend. Specht, 37, never imagined it would be the last time he saw his son alive.
Specht thought his son was in the backroom playing until his friend asked, “Where’s Richie?” In that moment Specht raced to the backyard and found his son floating face down in a pond in the backyard.
“For what seemed like forever, I tried performing CPR on him,” Specht said. “I tried everything that I could. I called 911, but it was too late. He was gone.”
That day, his wife Samantha, who was shopping with their daughters Lorilei, 6, and Abigail, 8, struggled to get home with police cars blocking the street and her driveway.
“The police officer told me it was my baby and I lost it,” she said. “They took us to the hospital and that’s where we had to say goodbye to our little boy, but at least we got to hold him before they took him away from us.”
Soon after, the motivation to turn the most horrible of tragedies into something positive came the family’s way. Kelly Brothers Landscaping in Coram volunteered to remove the pond at no cost to the Spechts.
“I just couldn’t look at the pond anymore,” Rich Specht said. “They filled it in, added the mulch and plants and wouldn’t take a dime for it. That’s where I got the idea to pay it forward and do it in my son’s name to keep his memory alive.”
By mid-November, the family had created a Facebook page, called “ReesSpechtLife,” and a foundation committed to making the world a better place by asking the community to do random acts of kindness in their son’s name.
The Facebook page has already reached more than 4,200 likes.
Rich Specht, a science teacher at Great Hollow Middle School in Nesconset for 13 years, said he wants this to become a chain reaction of kindness within the community.
In February, Specht went through the drive-thru at a nearby Dunkin' Donuts and paid for the breakfast of the customer behind him, leaving a “ReesSpechtLife” card behind. The next day, the cashier reached out to him to tell him that after he left many customers followed suit.
“I want my little boy’s name to carry on as a force to do good,” Richard Specht said. “Losing our son made us realize how short life is and that you should make the most of it. We have been inspired to make others happy – just like he did.”
Lisa Stevenson, whose son is in Specht's eighth-grade science class, said it broke her heart to hear the news and she was eager to be a part of the “ReesSpechtLife” movement.
“It’s my hope that the Specht family realizes that their reach extends far beyond our community,” said Stevenson, 37, of Smithtown. Her family often pays for others' meals when they go out to dinner and leaves behind a ReesSpechtLife card.
Specht created a memory book on the ReesSpechtLife website for loved ones of a Nesconset teen who had died on March 26. A former student of his, Liam Armstrong was celebrating his 18th birthday the night he was fatally hit by a Manhattan subway train while attempting to cross the tracks.
“After hearing about what happened, I felt that pit in my stomach I had hoped to never feel again,” Rich Specht said. “I had to do something and this was exactly what I wanted the foundation to become — a way to help other families cope with similar loss.”
On April 5, the ReesSpechtLife Foundation will hold its first fundraising event from 2 to 8 p.m. at Napper Tandy’s in Smithtown. The event will feature drink specials, music and raffles, and proceeds will benefit the Richard Edwin-Ehmer Specht Memorial Scholarship Fund, which the Specht family set up in Rees’ name for graduating seniors from Smithtown East and West high schools.
Daniela McKee, one of Rich Specht’s colleagues, said one particular picture of Rees in a Superman costume is burned into her mind.
McKee said after an estranged friend recently lost her mother she hesitated to reach out, but then the image of Rees reminded her to step up and ease her friend’s pain.
“The family is so inspirational that they’ve taken their pain and turned it into something positive,” said McKee, 34, of East Setauket. “When people hear Rees' story and see his precious face, they’re moved to do good deeds. For a little Superman, he’s a big inspiration.”
For more information on the foundation or how to help, visit reesspechtlife.com.