Legacy is defined as something transmitted by or received from the past. In my business, which so often deals with the aftermath of loss, legacy is at the vanguard of peoples thoughts. While it might not have been at the forefront of our minds when all was well, it becomes integrally tied into future considerations as we cope with the loss of a loved one. The closer our relationship to the one who has passed, the more we think about their legacy.
When the past arrives suddenly and without invitation defining a legacy is a way to make sense of the senseless, and to give meaning to death. It was thoughts of legacy that helped me ascend from the depths of the abyss after Polly’s tragedy in 1993. She had given beautiful meaning to her life, but after October 1, she only existed in memory and risked being measured as nothing more than a statistical abstraction. I wanted to ensure that her death had meaning; that it was not in vain. To achieve that goal I had to create her legacy.
Violet and I thought that the Polly Klaas Foundation would be the instrument of that legacy, but instead we were deceived. Finally, theKlaasKids Foundation, which we founded and controlled, became the vessel upon which her legacy would be conceived and implemented.Stop Crimes Against Children became our mission and Polly was our beacon. Almost 20-years later, we feel a sense of accomplishment and truly believe that Polly’s death represents more than a point on a pie chart.
In Omaha, Nebraska the parents of twelve-year-old Amber Harris struggled mightily to define the legacy of their slain daughter. On November 29, 2005 Amber got off of the school bus at the wrong stop and was never seen alive again. Her remains were discovered in a shallow grave on May 10, 2006. The man sentenced to death for kidnapping, raping and murdering Amber was a registered sex offender who lived near her bus stop. At Amber’s publicly televised memorial her mother announced that her legacy would include school bus rerouting so that proximity to the homes of level 3 registered sex offenders could be avoided. Amber’s parents were successful in that effort.
So many laws are named after murdered children. When the mother of seven-year-old Megan Kanka quietly and eloquently told reporters that if she had known that a high risk sex offender lived across the street she never would have allowed her daughter to play alone in the front yard, it struck a public nerve. Since 1996, convicted sex offenders in the United States have been required to register with local law enforcement and citizens have been able to access that information to protect their families. Megan’s legacy is Megan’s Law.
In 2005, little Jessica Lunsford was sexually abused and murdered by a level 3 sex offender neighbor in rural Florida. Her father Mark began touring State Capitols lobbying for legislation that would classify lewd or lascivious molestation on a person under the age of 12 as a life felony, and a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years in prison and lifetime electronic monitoring of adults convicted of lewd or lascivious molestation against a victim less than 12 years old. Jessica’s Law has been enacted in more than 40-states and Jessica Lunsford’s legacy will protect children for decades to come.
Legacy can be manifested in many forms. Every time that Michael Le and Krystine Dinh volunteer at the Sierra Search Center they add to their beloved sister and cousin Michelle Le’s legacy. Like so many others who volunteer with the KlaasKids Foundation or the Sierra Search Center, they have found a way to pay their loss forward through legacy building. You can create a movement that will change the world; you can conduct your life in a way that will honor the memory of the child, brother, sister, mother or father who inspires thoughts of legacy; or you can do any and all things in between. One is no more important than the other. What is important is that you honor the memory of loss in a way that soothes your mind and allows you to sleep at night knowing that you have created meaning out of death.
While Polly’s years were few, her stature diminutive and her experience was limited, her legacy is as vast as her courage. She inspired us to be bigger, better and more than we otherwise would have been. Through the work of the KlaasKids Foundation her final act has reverberated from the family kitchen table to the president’s cabinet table.