"To really make a change in the world, sometimes you have to see the absolute worst that we can do," says 29-year-old Alex Sheen in the back office of Because I Said I Would's storefront on Detroit Ave. in Lakewood one May afternoon.
Some 1,100 miles away in Tampa Bay, Fla., Julie Powers Schenecker is days away from being convicted by a jury of murdering her two children and sentenced to two life terms in prison. Her husband, Colonel Parker Schenecker, a 27-year U.S. Army veteran, has seen the absolute worst that we can do."You lost both of your children and your wife," says Sheen. "It would have been easy to lose faith in humanity, just to give up, to sit in a room."
But that's not what the Colonel did, despite the sickening tragedy he endured, the details of which have been splayed out in national media and across south Florida.
In January 2011, Parker Schenecker was stationed in Afghanistan. For those in the military and their loved ones, the sight of a priest and an officer of your same rank on your doorstep is a telltale and undebatable sign of life-changing bad news. When Schenecker saw that duo of doom approach him, he thought perhaps it was his mother. He braced himself. The news was far more horrifying. His wife had shot their son Beau, 13, twice while driving him to soccer practice, then returned home to kill their daughter Calyx, 16, with the same .38 revolver while she sat at her desk doing homework.
Colonel Schenecker gave a brief eulogy shortly thereafter for the children he thought he would never have to bury, let alone under these circumstances. It was succinct and heartfelt and wrought with the emotion of a father robbed of his everything.
"As I mourn the loss of my two children, my dearly beloved children," he said in February 2011, "I am comforted that they have been welcomed on the other side and heaven is rejoicing at their coming."
He then added a very simple promise: He would spend every day of the rest of his life remembering their lives.
It was more than a year later when the Colonel came upon Alex Sheen and Because I Said I Would, which launched in late 2012 and declared itself a "social movement and nonprofit organization dedicated to bettering humanity through the power of a promise." The group sent out 10 small, business-card-sized pieces of cardboard with "because I said I would" in the lower right corner to anyone who asked for them. The recipient would write their promise in the blank space. If they wrote it to someone else, they gave it to them and it would be returned when the promise was fulfilled.
Simple, really: A promise is important. Here, then, is a tactile reminder of that.
In Sheen, Colonel Schenecker would find a kindred spirit, a motivating force, an outlet for good, a check on what he said he would do. And thousands and thousands of others did too, all reaching out to Sheen for the same reason with stories loaded with emotional baggage and inspiration and the heaviest of personal weight.
Not many of those stories have been told publicly but the ones that have resonate deeply. It was Sheen who 22-year-old Matthew Cordle sought out to help him confess on video to killing a man while drunk driving all for the promise of telling others to stop driving under the influence. It was Sheen and his nonprofit to whom Garth Callaghan reached out with a promise — he would write 826 napkin notes for his daughter so she could have one with lunch every single day, even if he died from the cancer with which he was recently diagnosed.
And so it was with Colonel Schenecker.
"This is his commitment," says Sheen of Schenecker's promise. "He started a memorial fund, he started scholarships for kids in the schools where Calyx and Beau attended so that as they grow up, they can have full meaningful lives to help others. He started a leadership and ethics speaker series. And he asked me to the be the inaugural speaker. How do you say no to that?"
Not even two years ago, Alex Sheen was blissfully toiling away at Hyland Software on Cleveland's west side, content with his role as innovation manager in one of the fastest growing, highest ranking places to work in Northeast Ohio. Nineteen months later, he employs six people, has started a nonprofit business in a completely different field, distributed over 1.4 million promise cards (hitting all 50 states and an astonishing 105 countries), given dozens of speeches across the country, touched thousands of lives around the world and is in the midst of planning one major event.
Imagine one of those maps sprawled out on the wall with lines of yarn connecting pin dots. Imagine the center in Lakewood and the push pins and yarn covering the entire map so that not one microscopic spec of terrain was visible. That's what Alex Sheen's little idea has produced, the stories and promises poured out across the globe.
Many of these stories would resonate like those, hit supernova viral status in a matter of days and land Alex Sheen on the morning talk show merry-go-round again and Because I Said I Would across the headlines. Think of a national tragedy and chances are better than not someone involved has been in contact with Sheen. From our darkest depths comes the greatest change.
But Sheen has very good reasons for not telling those stories. Not yet, maybe not ever, and definitely not for the reasons you want them told. He'll simply keep doing what he promised to do in the first place and nothing more for now, because he said he would.***
Alex Sheen wasn't a bad person, just someone who was loose with his word and bad with followups. His father was the polar opposite.
Alex was the kind of guy who was always late. He was the guy who, when his father deposited his college tuition payment in his bank, neglected to drop it off at school long enough that he got charged with a late fee. It was only $25 or so, but that wasn't the point, his father told him. You had the money, you knew when it was due, I gave it to you, and all you had to do was walk down the hall.
And so after his father was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2011 and when he passed away in September 2012, Sheen pondered what to say in his eulogy. He thought about what his father did with his life, his promises made and the promises kept, the little things that parents tacitly agree to do simply by signing up for the gig and the ways in which his father went above and beyond that duty.
"I sat back and I thought, 'You're not good with promises, Alex,'" he says. "'And the best part of the person you just lost? You don't have that in you.'"
Reading from a few pieces of paper, Sheen delivered his eulogy with a call to arms.