By Beth Anne Marengo
Naomi Scherr should have started classes at the Emma Willard Boarding School in Troy, New York this fall. She should have been honing her skills on her Fender and jamming with her Dad on weekends. She should have been anxiously awaiting the release of the next “Harry Potter” movie and experimenting with yet another new hair color.
But she wasn’t.
Naomi, 13, and her father, Alan Scherr, 48, were killed during the terrorist attack on Mumbai last November that lasted 4 days and took the lives of 160 people.
They had been in India on a spiritual retreat sponsored by the Synchronicity Foundation when the terrorists struck – and were gunned down in the restaurant at the Oberoi Hotel as they shared a meal with their fellow travelers.
“I was shot along with them and I died while I was alive,” says Kia Scherr, Alan’s wife and Naomi’s mother. “I miss them. They were my best friends and companions. On that level, I’m alone.”
But right from the beginning, Scherr said, she shunned the urge most people would feel to lash out against the attackers who took her family from her and instead chose to focus on forgiveness and celebrating life.
So along with Charles Cannon, who led last year’s retreat to Mumbai, and other survivors of the attack, Kia Scherr is launching One Life Alliance. They plan to use the alliance to help unite people from different backgrounds and cultures by highlighting the fact that all people are members of one human race. They’ll use the group’s Web site as a venue for conversation and hold events around the country focused on promoting the sacredness of life.
Scherr and Cannon say the idea for the alliance was born from the outpouring of support she received from people – most of them strangers – from around the world in the aftermath of the attacks.
“When we appeared right after the terrorist experience and offered a message of love, compassion and forgiveness, it shocked a lot of people,” says Cannon. “They were inspired by what we said.”
The Synchronicity Foundation, founded by Cannon, is a spiritual group that teaches followers to live a holistic lifestyle through meditation, positive mental outlook, and balanced diet and exercise. The Scherr family lived together at Synchronicity’s meditation center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia for 11 years before Alan and Naomi were killed.
The One Life Alliance officially launches on Thanksgiving Day, but the founders have already held several events around North America.
Scherr and Cannon teamed up with Linda Ragsdale, a Nashville-based artist and a survivor of the Mumbai attacks, to form the Peace Dragons program, which teaches children about respecting life through art, music and dance – and drawing dragons.
Ragsdale says the project grew out of her desire to fulfill a promise she made to Naomi Scherr the night she died.
Just before the terrorists struck, Ragsdale had been at dinner with Naomi and Alan. She and Naomi were discussing plans for the next day: they wanted to break the somersault record they had set earlier in the hotel pool, and Naomi had made Ragsdale promise to teach her how to draw a dragon.
Ragsdale admits the connection between “dragons” and “peace” isn’t immediately obvious to everyone, but explains dragons are a good vehicle for teaching children that you can find love and goodness, even in things that seem frightening.
Ragsdale and Scherr say they hope to one day take the program overseas, creating an international art exchange that would help foster relationships between children in countries at conflict, like India and Pakistan.
Ragsdale says she was shot at close-range during the attack, endured weeks in the hospital and continues to undergo physical therapy for her injuries. Nonetheless, she shares Cannon and Scherr’s persistent drive to create something positive out of the tragedy and their remarkable capacity for forgiveness.
The terrorist who shot her nearly took her life and killed her friends right in front of her, yet Ragsdale says the attack linked her and her assailant. She says she is connected to him “as if he were my own son.” And because of that link, she says she feels a duty to do what she can – in her own small way – to prevent anything like the Mumbai attacks from happening again.
For Ragsdale, the anniversary of the attacks is a milestone of how far the survivors have come since their ordeal – not as a reminder of what they suffered.
“I never took the title ‘victim,’" she says. Even when she was still in an Indian hospital, hours after the attack, she told Cannon, “We’re not victims of terrorism. We’re victors over terrorism.”
Cannon says while the past year has been difficult for members of his community, their spirituality has pulled them through.
“When something like this happens, it’s a time of testing,” says Cannon. “I think that’s been our saving grace – that our lifestyle over many, many years served us well in this experience.”
As they mark the anniversary of the Mumbai attacks this Thanksgiving, the Synchronicity Foundation will be reinventing some of their holiday traditions.
Ragsdale’s family is taking a trip to North Carolina. She says that after last year, it would be too hard for them to celebrate at home in Tennessee.
Alan Scherr used to cook Thanksgiving dinner at the Synchronicity retreat center. Now that task will fall to someone else. This year’s meal will serve as a fundraiser for the One Life Alliance. There will also be a memorial service for Alan and Naomi, and Scherr and Cannon will host a webcast to help spread the message of their new organization.
Through the fall, Kia Scherr has been busy preparing to launch her new project, but she’s also been visited by some bittersweet memories.
She remembers taking Naomi last year to visit that boarding school she was eagerly hoping to attend. And dropping her husband and daughter off at Dulles International Airport for their flight to India; it was Naomi’s fist time on a plane. Before the terrorists struck, last fall had been a time of excitement and possibility for the Scherr family.
Scherr says she thinks about what could have been, but doesn’t obsess over it. She tries to hold on to the things her husband and daughter loved.
When that "Harry Potter" movie Naomi would have wanted to see came out earlier this year, Kia was at the theater.
“I went by myself, as I knew she would want me to,” says Scherr. “And after an initial cry, I relaxed and enjoyed the movie.”
Programming Note: Kia Scherr and Charles Cannon will be live guests on CNN Newsroom at 2 p.m. ET on Wednesday, November 25th.