Father Answers Cruel Blow with Educational Mission
By Linda T. Kennedy
The Stamford Connecticut house fire that took the lives of Matthew Badger’s children Lily, age 9, and twin sisters Sarah and Grace, age 7, happened Christmas morning 2011. The Silver Lining News online relaunch was still just a dinner-table concept then. With the rest of the world, we watched that Christmas Day news with shock, disbelief and profound sadness. And then we said, “Watch: something amazing is going to result from this. And we should try to make it our first story.”
Dear Readers, we watched.
Now, here is that “something amazing.”
In a three-part series posted each day following our launch, read about how profound loss and the memory and love of three little girls is changing the face of education in schools countrywide.
“With my loss I was left with very little purpose. Being a father to the girls was the center foundation of my life and gave me joy, unconditional love and tremendous focus. With the sudden removal I lost all meaning to my life,” Badger reflects. “You hear people say nothing is worse than losing your children, but it’s more than that, it’s really quite isolating.”
Standing on this island of horrific loss with Badger and the girl’s families is Abby Ballin, Badger’s girlfriend. Lily, Sarah and Grace had recently bonded with Abby as part of their family, says Badger, and things couldn’t have been better for them. Ballin, he says, developed a deep love for the girls and in her own grief, pined for answers.
Breaking the Sound of Silence
In the first hours and days following that unthinkable event, it was the conversations with family and friends that held them up, recalls Badger. “We talked a lot after it happened,” he says. “It was all of the love and talk about our girls that helped us survive. We talked about Lily, Sarah and Grace and our love for them, their love for us; we talked about their talents and challenges.”
Ballin’s grief worked as creative energy when talk turned into collaboration. “I knew we had to do something [to honor them],” says Ballin. “I didn’t know what that something was, and neither did Matt. I would throw out suggestions, a park, a scholarship, a statue, a foundation, etc. I guess it was survival mode kicking in, not knowing what to do, but knowing we couldn’t just do nothing at all.”
Certainly, for all the energy and love Badger channeled towards his daughters “nothing” was definitely not an option. He knew just three things: he wanted to help other children, he wanted it to be in the classroom and he wanted his energies to benefit impoverished children who are less fortunate than his daughters were.
When he reflected on the girls and their education, he realized how important the arts were to them – Lily, a dancer and poet; Sarah, an expressive, social force; and Grace, a painter. And he recalled one teacher in particular, Amie Schindel, who taught Grace in Kindergarten, and decided that the “something” would include bringing “Amie” to every child in the country.
Where “The Silvering” Begins
“After weeks of indescribable sorrow, the dark cloud of grief cleared for a brief moment, enough time for Matt to land on what he knew we needed to do for the girls – for us.” The couple would start the LilySarahGrace (LSG) Fund, a non-profit organization based in New York, NY, to grant art supplies to teachers throughout the country working in impoverished public schools.
LSG would not only celebrate Lily, Sarah and Grace’s lives, but help maintain the kind of learning in schools that they thrived on. It would be a vehicle to supplement educator’s budgets and nurturing other children like his own. “Witnessing him in that moment was like something from another world, maybe it is my poor memory or my vivid imagination, but it was like a light was shining on him as he stood in our kitchen and in that moment, with all my heart, I believed that he had found the answer,” recalls Ballin. “Coming from a background in the arts myself this too was very important to me.”
At the start of 2012, substantial federal budget cuts were looming to affect programs and teacher’s jobs in arts and special education, so the timing was right for an organization like LSG. Knowing many schools lacked art funding before additional budget cuts, Badger saw it as a pending tragedy for children, especially since he believes his daughters enjoyed school primarily because of arts-based education opportunities.
“Art in the schools is usually funded by parent/teacher associations, and in some schools, families do not have the income to contribute towards it,” Badger explains. “So when you go to a school in areas that have wealth, and it’s filled with art, that’s because the parents are paying for it. But in the outlining areas of New York City, for instance, it’s a different situation. There’s no funding coming in for supplying the arts – and [consequently] all the [art] teachers have been let go.”
And educational budget cuts in general, have always been a sore spot with parents and educators, including during the Great Recession. So you could essentially say that in this instance, Badger and Ballin set out to be two parent figures representing many throughout the country with LSG.
No Holds Barred
Badger and Ballin left their day jobs (as television director and film stylist, respectively) and within the first few months of the project, dedicated all of their time and resources towards the developing the organization. After defining LSG’s mission, they launched a media campaign to raise awareness of the project. Badger visited Good Morning America, The View and The Katie Couric Show and even though his grief was still very fresh, unbearable, he shared how he would channel his loss into helping other children.
“Ultimately, Matthew Badger’s healing will be when he walks into a classroom that has been funded by this monument that we’ve created for my children,” he told Good Morning America. “And if we are able to do that then Lily, Sarah and Grace have done it – it’s beautiful, it’s absolutely beautiful.”
Badger saw that start to materialize quickly. Within just weeks after the television appearances, he and Ballin pulled their creative connections together and lite up Broadway to raise the first funds for the organization. LSG hosted Whoopi Goldberg, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Juliane Moore, Eric Bogosian, Sir Ken Robinson, and 60 local children who performed dance and music. Every teacher that taught Lily, Sarah and Grace were on stage in the 42nd St., sold-out theater to greet 500 guests and launch LSG’s mission in an evening of celebration.
The first school supplies were delivered to classrooms within a few months following the kick-off fundraiser, and Badger and Ballin left for a coast-to-coast bus tour to see LSG in action in the classrooms. “Abby and I traveled the country visiting Chicago, Louisville, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, Arizona and California,” recalls Badger. “In each classroom, we filmed the projects LSG funded.”
Badger transferred his experience from directing television commercials to interviewing the teachers. He produced “The Language of Art” and launched it with the LSG website, where donors could also learn about Lily, Sarah and Grace.
“That First year, Abby and I moved on by completely throwing ourselves into this fund,” Badger says. “I worked on it on an obsessive level and it got us through those first months.” The bus tour, and the year, ended with the memory of three – Lily, Sarah and Grace – working in the interest of thousands.
And LSG’s light in the coming year would grow even brighter, beyond Badger’s and Ballin’s initial goals for it. It would take on an entirely new life of its own infused with the expertise and leadership of a group of teachers who would redefine LSG as an innovator for tomorrow’s education models.