Each one of our life stories is part of the larger story of the universe, according to the teachings of the Well Spirituality Center in La Grange Park.
When one story seems to conclude, it doesn’t really end, as other people carry on the work and the memory of those who came before.
So, too, does a group of schoolchildren from throughout the Chicago area continue the story of Anne Smedinghoff, 25, the U.S. diplomat killed in April by an explosive in Afghanistan while delivering books to children.
Over the course of two retreats at the Well, which is an offshoot of the Congregation of St. Joseph, local kids collaborated remotely with children in Afghanistan on artwork for a book dedicated to Anne’s memory. They will finish the book Sept. 18 at a third retreat.
A shipment of the books will head in October to the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan where Smedinghoff worked, as well as to other peace-focused organizations. From there they will be distributed to children throughout the country.
“It was a special experience for all of us, really,” said Bridget Sperduto, executive director of the Well.
The project originated in January with a more general focus on peace. The children talked during the first retreat about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s story and their dreams for the future.
Thirty fourth- and fifth-graders from eight schools participated, including Immaculate Conception Grade School in Elmhurst.
“We weren’t looking for traditional leaders,” Sperduto said. “We were looking for kids who maybe see the world with different eyes.”
News of Smedinghoff’s death came as the center planned the second retreat.
It was a deeply personal loss for the retreat staff, three of whom had taught either Smedinghoff or one of her siblings at St. Luke School in River Forest. Someone suggested using Anne as an example of leadership during the retreat.
A song written by Kathy Sherman, a sister in the Congregation of St. Joseph, perfectly expressed the sentiment Smedinghoff spread through her work in Afghanistan: We are more the same than different.
“We started crying, and said, ‘This is our book,’ ” Sperduto said.
The foundation for The Language of the Heart was born.
Halfway across the world—and in LaGrange Park—the children created artwork to accompany Sherman’s lyrics.
The Well asked Smedinghoff’s parents for permission to dedicate the book to her and invited them to speak to the kids about what she was like at age 10.
The Smedinghoffs obliged, even though the retreat was mere days after Anne’s funeral.
Mary Beth Smedinghoff, Anne’s mother, began to cry as the children sang a tribute. A girl walked over and hugged her.
“Then every child followed,” Sperduto said.
The children took a while to process Smedinghoff’s story, bewildered that something so terrible happened to someone trying to bring such good into the world.
Then Sperduto asked them about a recent story they had read where death did not prove to be the end.
“So is this the end of Anne’s story?” she asked.
No, it is not the end, the children said.
“We didn’t know these people, but our hearts were sad with theirs,” Sperduto said. “It was out of that deep place of connectedness (the children) were able to write their responses, their dreams for the future and do their artwork.”
The book will be released Oct. 13 during a celebration open to the public at the Well, which is located at 1515 W. Ogden Ave. in LaGrange Park. The center is also accepting page sponsors to help support the cost of publishing the book. For more information, visit www.csjthewell.org or call 708-482-5048.