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Co-Founder and Executive Director, Dylan’s Wings of Change.
On December 14, 2012, Ian Hockley’s six-year-old son Dylan was killed in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, along with 19 other first graders and six educators. Three months after the tragedy, Hockley launched a nonprofit called Dylan’s Wings of Change. Today, the “Wingman” movement is reaching more than 25,000 students, offering a youth-led social and emotional learning program that helps build stronger and more resilient communities. In February 2020, Hockley spoke with PwC about his family, his work, and his passion for 200-mile relay races.
Why did you create Dylan’s Wings of Change?
To inspire kids to lift each other up, to be each other’s “wingman.” We want to inspire greater empathy in young people as an antidote to the epidemic of social isolation that’s facing society today.
What do you mean by social isolation?
I mean this anti-social environment of exclusion and isolation, call it loneliness if you want, that often causes people ranging in ages to possibly hurt themselves and others. I liken it that we're in the middle of an "Emotional Revolution" right now, just like in the past we went through the tremendous upheavals of the Industrial and Information Revolutions. Can you imagine someone physically filling up with the excessive amount of information we receive every day? Their brain and their body may become overloaded, and it’s coming straight back out through their thumbs. Our emotions are hit, daily, with a firehose of information. That can bring sadness, anger, frustration, loss, loneliness, and ultimately feelings of social isolation, which can lead to behavioral problems. So, at Dylan’s Wings of Change, we try to empower students with the tools they need to help identify, understand, and manage their feelings—and to know when other people might need help, too.
Tell us about your son Dylan and how he inspired you.
We only had Dylan with us for such a short time, but he brought us so much love and compassion. One of his challenges was autism, which affected his speech development. So sometimes he couldn’t express himself easily, but he would always try. When he got over excited he would jump up and down and flap his hands. His mother Nicole told a story at his celebration of life service about this one time when he was flapping and she asked him why. He said: “Mummy, I’m a beautiful butterfly.” That's the inspiration for our logos, and also the "Butterfly Effect," where many small changes will accumulate over time and lead to a massive impact in the world.
And how is your older son, who survived the shooting?
My older son was in third grade, and he’s now a sophomore in high school. For a few months after the shooting he would hardly talk. He seemed to be in a daze. Our entire town has suffered on a massive scale. It’s still reverberating. But he saw a wonderful therapist and she started to bring back that happy little boy we used to know. Just this past January, he did a cultural exchange in India, living and working with other children in an orphanage outside Delhi. He’s a warm, funny, and kind kid, and he still misses his brother so much.
You grew up in England. What brought you to the U.S.?
We moved from England to Connecticut in 2011, when IBM transferred me for a job assignment. A number of the victims’ families were new to Sandy Hook, actually. It was that sort of idyllic place you moved to, to raise a family.
Why did you leave IBM last year, after a long career with the company?
After the shooting, IBM was amazing. They gave me opportunities to take on different roles, but when that didn’t work out, they gave me long-term leave to focus on Dylan’s Wings of Change. My leave finally ended in 2019 and IBM let me go. The foundation is a small but mighty organization, with three full-time employees and a network of 20 Wingman trainers across the tristate area. Right now, we have more than 25,000 kids involved in our Wingman movement. We have programs taking place in more than 50 schools and 300 dance studios. Now we are focused on expanding our reach even farther.
How does the organization work?
We collaborate with schools, sports teams, dance studios, and other clubs to train their kids as the leaders of the program. Peer-to-peer programming is highly effective in this area. Typically, we provide a two-day intensive training, with activities that are intended to spark genuine human interactions and real conversations. We play a game, for example, where kids simply have to pass a tin can around a circle using only their feet. The activity can be an exercise in great communication, strategy, and teamwork, but sometimes the kids start yelling at each other because they get frustrated. So, we use those moments as opportunities to reflect and address how to deal with it, helping them develop their social and emotional skills but in a language they understand as they help each other.
Do you talk to children about school shootings?
Despite what we see in the media, school shootings like major fires are not common. But when they happen, they are devastating for a community. And we need to be better prepared for emergency situations. The more important conversations are about feelings. A kid of any age can understand what it’s like to feel alone, or scared or sad. Kids in elementary school who have been shunned by their peers have started on that journey to social isolation that may end in dark places. They might hurt themselves or other people. We want to talk about those children’s feelings and help them. That’s the objective of my talks with high school and middle school students.
What’s next for you?
After working with teachers, principals, and superintendents, as well as students, we’ve seen a need for better social and emotional learning skills among adults, too. So now we’re expanding our workshops from the classrooms to the corporate world, building specific programs for C-suite executives and other business leaders. The activities are the same, but the interactions and discussions change for the participants we work with. For more details, we encourage people to contact us through our website.
Speaking of business, what did you learn at PwC that still resonates in your work today?
A deep sense of integrity, that never left me. I think I’ll always be 20% auditor, in everything I do. I believe in the rules and in the process, and always weighing up both sides to an argument before proceeding.
After everything you’ve been through, when and where do you find happiness?
I like to run. I’ve done two Ragnar relay races each year since 2013, when I first ran one as a fundraiser for Dylan’s Wings of Change. I’ve even done them overseas, and it’s a very emotional experience, especially when you get your turn to run in the middle of the night. There’s something so beautiful about it, that feeling of moving forward when it’s completely silent and dark, being alone with your thoughts and knowing there is a team out there that has got your back.
What’s the best advice you can offer others?
The right time to tell someone you love them is right now. Don’t wait. Because you never know when it will be too late.
US Alumni Network Manager, PwC US
US Alumni Network Manager, PwC US