Compassionate Gifted Student Inspires President Obama
When images of Omran, the young Syrian boy in the ambulance in Aleppo made the news, many of us were moved emotionally, but how many of us took action? How many of us have any idea of what to do in the face of traumatic news like this? Well, one brave little boy named Alex knew exactly what to do, so he took action.
Alex wrote a letter to the President of the United States. You may have heard of Alex, because his thoughtful letter did in fact inspire President Obama, and in turn, this little boy’s decision to act had a meaningful impact on millions of people around the world.
Something you may not know about Alex is that he is a gifted and talented youth, and like many children with high intelligence, he is incredibly sensitive and compassionate. These qualities are wonderful, but they are also part of the challenges facing the parents of exceptionally bright kids.
Alex is a student at the Summer Institute for the Gifted (SIG), and looking forward to returning this summer. SIG is a program of the National Society for the Gifted and Talented (NSGT), providing educational and social opportunities to meet the needs and abilities of academically gifted and talented students. In the following, Alex’s mother Val graciously answers a few questions about their family’s approach to dealing with a gifted student with extreme empathy — especially in light of Alex’s profound experience with President Obama bringing attention to the plight of refugees.
The whirlwind of media attention that followed Alex’s letter to President Obama was something special. Can you share a bit about what the experience was like for you and the impact it had on Alex and your family?
When we received the call from the White House, it was truly an incredible moment. To hear that the President of the United States has read the moving letter of our 6-year-old son, and that they are calling to ask for permission to quote Alex’s letter in a presidential speech to the Leaders Summit on Refugees at the United Nations — it doesn’t get more emotional than that.
The media certainly followed with much interest and attention. We were invited by many newspapers and TV networks to be interviewed, and everyone wanted to meet with Alex. It was a fantastic feeling of pride, honor and privilege that was given to us by so many positive reactions to Alex’s heartfelt message, which now, thanks to President Obama, was shared with the whole world.
However, deep inside, we knew that Alex did not write this letter for fame, or for the world to see whom Alex was. He wrote it for Omran, pouring words from his heart, and tears from his eyes – crying that he couldn’t write fast enough, and Omran was waiting for him to help. He still hopes that “they will meet in a peaceful Syria one day” (his words).
The letter expresses a genuine compassion that seems to easily strip us of the busy, complicated thoughts that we modern humans have, and allows us to think of love in the simplest and most basic terms: if you love someone, you must take care of them. Period. If you love children, you must protect them.
Alex didn’t question whether it would be ok to bring Omran as a brother into our family. He didn’t ask whether we as parents would be okay with his letter to the President, pledging to share all we had with this little boy. To him, once you see that a child is hurt, and that a child is alone, there is no doubt we must do something to help. To him, care starts with love. So the letter said it all.
As much as Alex and President Obama raised awareness of the plight of refugees, I’d love to hear from you a bit about what it is like to be raising a gifted & talented child with great compassion for others in light of the recent publicity. Do you have any advice to offer parents of other compassionate children like Alex to express themselves regarding their observations and feelings?
We have always made it a priority to raise kind and well-mannered kids. If it happens that they are gifted, we feel very fortunate, and we will do our best to foster their growth. The Summer Institute for the Gifted, for example, has been a great program to add to their yearly learning and socializing activities. Alex raves about it and can hardly wait to join SIG again this summer. But, the academic and social programs for their growth, as important as they are, should not be the only tools needed for them to succeed. As parents, we try to go a step further – providing them with opportunities to be exposed to the good, but also some of the bad in life — testing their understanding of society and their role in it, in a proactive and meaningful way.
It is a challenging approach, because our instincts tell us to shield our kids and to see them as happy as possible, all the time. Our children are surrounded by great amounts of stimuli and information coming from all sources: friends, toys, shows, electronics, apps, games, etc. — and that’s great. But with all this abundance of information comes the challenge of how do we highlight what’s important in life, and what our values are to be. Do we wait until they are grown up and fully formed for us to expose them to lessons of good and bad in life? Or do we look for opportunities to open their mind about what is around them and allow them to experience kindness and compassion in a meaningful way?
There are many opportunities where small actions make a huge impact in their little minds. For example, on his 5th birthday, Alex and I were having lunch in Manhattan and as we exited the restaurant, there was a homeless man on the street. It was a very cold day, and the gentleman looked very sad. Alex stopped and was looking at him as if to ask him, “are you cold?” but he didn’t speak. He was holding a box of chocolates in his hand, to share them with his sister and friends later on at his birthday party. But he looked at the man and looked at the chocolates and looked at me, not knowing what to do.
I could tell that he wanted to give the chocolates to the homeless man, but wasn’t sure if that was okay to do. I nodded and said, “it’s very kind of you Alex. You should ask him if he’d like to have your chocolates.” So he did. And the gentleman said, “yes.”
To this day, Alex remembers that moment, and to this day he feels happy that he did something to help the gentleman in the cold. Many other parents out there can give examples of teaching moments of compassion with their kids. We are not unique in this sense. We simply cannot live life detached from the realities of the world, and our kids should start learning now about the fortunes and misfortunes of life.
If my kids throw food in the garbage, we sit down with them and watch parts of documentaries depicting poverty around the world, hoping that they appreciate what they have even more. We take that moment, right there and then, to try to teach them something that would shape their understanding of life in a memorable way.
Although we didn’t intend to show Omran’s story to Alex, when he saw it on my phone, I was not going to lie about it. I answered truthfully the questions he had about Omran and that story, while assuring him that the boy is okay now — healed and with good people keeping him safe. Shielding our kids from some of the bad in life will not help them grow fully aware of the world around them. Their curious and clever minds are very powerful and effective in turning something negative into a positive lesson or a positive action with impact.
What lessons have you learned as a result of this whole experience?
Months later, I had the courage to ask Alex, “why did you write the letter to the President?” I say I had the courage, because as I mentioned before, our focus has been on leading a normal life and not keeping him in the spotlight because of the letter.
There have been days where people ask, “is this Alex who wrote the letter to Obama?” and they immediately want to talk to him about it. He doesn’t really like that kind of attention.
So this January, I asked him this question, and he gave me a very simple response: “I wrote the letter to President Obama, because I care about people who are hurt. We should love them. We should look at how they feel and how hurt they are even if they are not from our country. I wanted to tell Omran that people care about you and they love you and there is no need to be afraid of anything.”
These simple words teach us a lot. No matter how complicated life is, no matter what political views we as citizens have, if one of us is hurt we should expect our fellow humans to help. Love and compassion must remain strong in the foundation of our existence. What else could be more important than that?
But our job is not done. Realizing that our kids are gifted places a higher sense of responsibility on us, as parents, to demand more from them in shaping the world as a better place for the future generations. We are committed to the work that it takes in raising intelligent, strong and compassionate kids.
How did Alex deal with the spotlight? Did it impact your family life?
No media interviews could enrich the essence of what my little boy had written with such an impact, from one little heart to another. We don’t even have TV at home, so Alex could not see what was happening and how many people had viewed his message. When we showed him and his sister Catherine the speech by the President, they smiled and were kind of shy. We made sure that at school and at home, life continued as normally as possible — prioritizing his privacy and his schoolwork.
Alex got a taste of the tremendous impact that his letter had made when he was invited to the Global Citizen Festival 2016 in Central Park, where 60,000 people were calling his name. As he was waving on stage, I could tell his shy eyes were happy, but also confused. “I was so frightened and shy, mommy,” he said when he got off the stage. It’s to be expected. He couldn’t connect why writing a letter about a boy he cares for would bring so many cheers at a concert in Central Park.
Then came the visit to the White House. To see our son and daughter shake President Obama’s hand was truly an emotional moment that we will never forget. Alex was happy, yet pensive, realizing for the first time what his letter had done. Here was the President, the busiest and most powerful man in the world, taking precious time to show us respect and gratitude for raising compassionate kids. What a moment! I could barely hold my tears, and I have never seen my kids’ eyes shine as bright as that day, in the Oval Office, chatting so innocently with the President.