Can violence be prevented with kindness and compassion? This teacher says it's a start.
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L'Oréal Paris Women of Worth

Kaitlin Roig-Debellis had never felt more terrified than she did on December 14, 2012.

All photos courtesy of L'Oreal Paris.

At 9:30 a.m., she was leading her first-grade class in their morning meeting at Sandy Hook Elementary  when she heard gunshots. "There was not a moment of pause or hesitation," says Roig-Debellis. "I knew it was a weapon and I knew it was coming into our school."


Roig-Debellis herded all of her students into the classroom's minuscule bathroom.  She used a storage cabinet to barricade the door.  She recalls worrying that not all of the children would fit, and that she wouldn't be able to save all of the children that had been entrusted to her care.

"I felt absolutely helpless," she says.

Thankfully, Roig-Debellis's class was rescued by a SWAT team 45 minutes later. While she and her students were physically unharmed, many others at Sandy Hook were that day, and the event completely changed the teacher's outlook on life. It robbed her of the person she'd been before the tragedy.

"My sense of safety and security were gone," she says.

When she looked in the mirror in the weeks and months following the shooting, she couldn't find the intensely independent person she'd been. She'd become afraid of everything.

"I realized that wasn't a way to live," she says.

As an educator, Roig-Debellis knew what she had to do. In order to help herself and her students heal, she had to turn tragedy into a teachable moment.

After the shooting, people all around the world began sending the students and teachers of Sandy Hook letters and presents to show their support and offer condolences.  

The gifts, Roig-Debellis remembers, were an inspiration. They helped her realize how many people cared and how important it was to foster connections — not just in her own community but with the rest of the world.

Roig-Debellis is a staunch supporter of stricter gun laws, but she also recognizes that policy is only part of preventing violence. She believes that kindness and compassion are also essential to help ensure safety in schools and beyond. And she knows that helping kids understand that they're part of a global community is an important part of making that a reality.

So, a year after Sandy Hook, Roig-Debellis launched Classes4Classes — a non-profit that's bringing social-emotional learning to the forefront of the primary school curriculum.

Classes4Classes is a social network that allows classrooms all around the country to connect with each other and show off the work they've been doing — giving students a chance to see how students across the country are both like them and different.

More importantly, the network allows classrooms to support each other by giving gifts that improve students' ability to learn. Teachers post what they need on the site and other classrooms help raise awareness in order to inspire donors to help fund these gifts. Then, the class receiving the gifts pays it forward (or 4ward in Classes4Classes parlance) by raising awareness and funds for another school in need. The lesson? That we're all stronger together and kindness is a bond that's not easily broken.

"We try to inspire and encourage children that kindness is the right choice," Roig-Debellis says. "What you put out you get back."

For Roig-Debellis the success of her non-profit is a clear sign that she has to keep pushing forward, spreading her message of kindness and compassion throughout the world.

Since the site went live, Classes4Classes has helped raise thousands of dollars for schools nationwide. Roig-Debellis, who heads the organization, has also had great success. She's written a book, is a popular speaker and had been named a L'Oreal Paris Woman of Worth for her bravery and transformative work. The prestigious honor has been awarded to 10 women annually since 2005 who've demonstrated both a fierce passion and dedication to their community.

For the educator, though, what's most important is the impact she's had on children. Making the world a kinder, safer, more connected place is what gave her her life back. Teaching kids that they're worth it every single day is what keeps her going.  

"What happened on that day was so full of hate and, in my opinion, so full of loneliness," she says. "For me, connecting kids to care about one another is the greatest thing I can do."

To learn more about Kaitlin Roig-Debellis and Classes4Classes, check out the video below.

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When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

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