A Fortuna author is using her work to convert a family tragedy into an opportunity for others. Jennifer Bailey, who writes young adult fiction under the pen name J. Lynn Bailey, is donating all of the profits from her upcoming book, Standing Sideways, to a scholarship fund that honors her cousin, Jason Dale Johnson. Johnson and nine others were killed in a shooting at Umpqua Community College on Oct. 1, 2015. The scholarship is for returning students in the Addiction Studies program, a choice Bailey says acknowledges her cousin's return to education and to life after struggling with addiction, a triumph that was tragically cut short.
Bailey, 35, is no stranger to struggle herself. She got clean and sober in 2009, a life development she credits with reviving her love of writing. As a child, she filled notebooks with her work, but in high school she drifted away from the craft, sliding into alcoholism. Her cousin Jason went down a similar road, becoming addicted to methamphetamines after leaving Fortuna High School in 2000. The cousins were close in childhood, with Jason's twin brother Michael rounding out what their family called the "Three Musketeers." Bailey, at a year and a half older than the twins, was often accused of being bossy.
"He'd say, 'You're not the boss of us, Jenn,'" Bailey recalls, her voice quavering slightly. The children of two single mothers, the three cousins grew up more or less like siblings.
"Jason had a way of calling me out on my shit, you know?" says Bailey. "He had a way of pointing out things point blank that I didn't see about myself."
When Bailey got into recovery at the age of 28, she began returning the favor.
"I would call him, and say, 'You are capable of so much more,'" she says. "You are so smart, you are so good at math. You need to go back to college."
He brushed her off: "You're not the boss of me, Jenn."
Bailey, who was busy raising two young children, managing her career as a transcript evaluator at College of the Redwoods and launching her debut novel Black Five, which was picked up as a series by Poorhouse Publishing in 2014, fell out of touch with her cousin, who was then living in Oregon. He would still call her every year on her birthday, and comment on her kids' pictures on Facebook. On Monday, Sept. 28, 2015, she noticed that he had posted on the site, asking if anyone could give him a ride to Umpqua Community College, in Roseburg, Oregon.
"You're going to college?" she asked him, excited. Johnson replied that, yes, he was. He had gone through a rehabilitation program at the Salvation Army and was six months clean and sober. He earned his GED through the Salvation Army and had enrolled in general education classes.
"He had that zest for life that I hadn't seen since we were kids," says Bailey.
Four days later, on a Thursday morning, 26-year-old Umpqua student Chris Harper-Mercer would walk into Johnson's writing class, carrying a backpack full of firearms. After firing a warning shot into the ceiling, he began to interrogate and then shoot people, beginning with the class's professor. He allegedly asked Johnson if he believed in God. Johnson said yes. Harper-Mercer told him good, he would send him to see God, then shot and killed him.
In the chaotic days following the shooting, Bailey went to Oregon to help with the funeral and grieve with her family. She learned more about her cousin's new life when she was there. A friend of Johnson's approached her after the service and told her he would come to her house when he was trying not to use and help her daughter with her homework.
"He always had a love for kids and animals; they were just drawn to him," Bailey says, her voice breaking again.
When she returned to work a week later, her coworkers had developed a plan. They suggested a perpetual scholarship in Johnson's name. Community members donated to the Jason Johnson Triumphant Return Scholarship, which launched in the fall 2016 semester. In the first year, the scholarship awarded two students $150 each. Scholarship requirements include a minimum 2.0 GPA, a completed application and a short essay describing any income barriers the student may have. Like Johnson, eligible students must be returning to school after some time away. Last year the money went to two single mothers, which Bailey says Johnson would have liked.
Jesse Genaro, a childhood friend of both Bailey and Johnson, says that he was a "very, very loyal friend."
"He was very family-oriented," Genaro says. "He would stick up for family and friends at the drop of a dime."
Bailey, Genaro says, is much the same.
Bailey says her next book, which she is self-publishing in order to donate the maximum amount of money to the scholarship, was extremely difficult to write at first. She cried a lot. The story focuses around a 17-year-old girl, Livia Stone, who loses her twin brother and has to figure out how to redefine herself and navigate life without him.
"I wrote 70,000 words, which is a full length novel, and scrapped all of it," Bailey says. "I couldn't find Livia's voice. I didn't want it to be my voice. But I knew it was something in me that had to get out there. For someone struggling with alcoholism, drug addiction, grief, this book might help them. It's a happy ending, I promise."
Standing Sideways should be out next spring.
Linda Stansberry is a staff writer at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 317, or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @LCStansberry.