Photo: Sarah Scott

For the past few years, we have jumped on the generic Summer Bucket List bandwagon. Visits to the zoo, afternoon picnics at the park and the splash park, and movie nights were all on the list. This summer will be remarkably different.

As an educator and mother of two young boys, I know that our kids are always listening and watching. Last summer, I would have overlooked any questions about the news and simply changed the subject to something positive, upbeat, and innocent. I would have told myself that they are too young to know about our very broken world. It’s not time to tell them the truth. Their tender hearts aren’t ready. I’m not ready. I would have tried to ignore the fact that things were changing, are changing, have changed. After all, children should be children as long as they can. What is happening out there isn’t really something we have to worry about right here, right now.

After this month’s tragic mass shooting in Orlando, I now face the heart shattering truth and I feel compelled to bring more LOVE into this world. My eyes are wide open as I contemplate my next move as a parent and a human being. What is happening out there has everything to do with what is happening right here, right now.

There is so much out of my control but I can take ownership of my own family’s convictions and priorities. I can choose to use this precious time with my young children to teach them how to love others unconditionally. I can create a safe space that promotes tolerance, acceptance, empathy, and compassion. As a family, we canput those ideas into practice. I can carefully explain what is happening within our world using language they can understand, instead of relying on the broken world and sensationalized media to relay the information for me. I can turn off the news and turn up my heart so that it beats above all of the noise, drowning it out. School may be closed for three months, but I have become increasingly more aware that it is time to teach.

With that said, this summer will be one we will remember forever. There will not be endlessly mundane trips to the splash park or the pool. Since we live in Virginia, we decided to travel around our state and visit as many of the LOVE signs as we possibly could. In line with the Virginia state slogan, “Virginia is for Lovers,” our home state has scattered hundreds of giant LOVE signs in various towns and landmarks. Some of the LOVE signs are in extremely remote areas and others are close to home. In order to visit all of the signs by September 1, we will need to travel outside of our bubble, see new places, meet new people, and explore. As we seek LOVE, we will find it, and we will share it. Along the way we will define what it means to LOVE unconditionally and be LOVED unconditionally. What has started out as a simple plan to experience more of our state has truly become a meaningful lesson in love and life.

It is the last day of June and we have already visited ten signs. There are still so many more to visit. As we search for the LOVE signs together, we learn more about the area, and think of ways to help out. We discuss that hands are for helping, not hurting. We seek ways to show love to the communities we visit. The children decided that they wanted to donate toys to children in need, have cleaned up an area of the Virginia highway, and picked up litter at a state park. They have visited the elderly and listened to an old man explain what the world was like “when he was young.”

Our longest trip so far has been about two hours roundtrip, but we have some four-five hour trips coming up in the next few weeks with several stops along the way. Each road trip has become a meaningful opportunity to teach and reflect, as we share our worries, our hopes, and dreams. It is a beautiful act of slowing down, connecting with each other and the communities that make up our beautiful state. It is a true act of LOVE.

This morning’s trip was to a small town on the Virginia and North Carolina border named Emporia. We were able to visit some peanut fields and learn about how peanuts grow. We purchased lunch for a young woman begging for money on the side of the road, the words on her cardboard sign declaring, “Please help.” We hope that we did. Afterwards, we ended up at an old-fashioned general store and sat on the side of a dirt road, watching a tractor in a nearby field as the kids enjoyed freshly-squeezed lemonade. Our oldest boy took in the sight and I could see him processing. I waited for him to speak, but he just smiled and looked up at me, his beautiful blue eyes twinkling. “This is the best summer ever, Mommy. I love our family and our LOVE sign adventures. I think we helped that lady we met today feel loved, too.” I smiled and gave him a high five with tears in my eyes as the sunshine danced with his copper-colored hair.