Hope for autism

Hands down, the best part of my job is meeting interesting people. Such was the case last March when I began exploring the world of autism that swirls through JMU — a story that grew bigger and better with each person I met. Every one led me to another until — a dozen interviews later — I had a picture of an amazing community.

But, first, let me back up… Eight years ago, during the university’s centennial celebration, I met a man I remembered as “Robert.” He was new to the JMU community and handled the plethora of signage for our yearlong celebration. At the time, Robert said he and his family had  moved to the Valley, seeking services for two sons who were diagnosed with autism. I’m not sure why his name stuck in my head, but it did. So last spring when the communications team decided to explore autism for an upcoming issue of Madison magazine, I called Robert — not knowing if he would even be willing to talk to me.

Fortunately, he was. In fact, Robert Weese was eager to talk. He and his family had discovered here in the Valley an invaluable network of support. I asked him what he hoped would come from telling his story. His answer was succinct: “Education,” he said. “Education is the key.” People need to be educated, so they understand individuals with autism, their strengths and their challenges.

Several years ago, I glimpsed the impact of education on autism when I interviewed Gay Finlayson. Decades before, she had searched far and wide to understand her daughter. It wasn’t until she brought her to JMU’s Early Childhood Development Center that she learned her daughter had autism. Gay’s story is emblematic: The more people I talked to, the more I realized that when the needs of the autism community join with the abilities and potentialities of higher education everyone benefits.

Garrett, Robert and Laurie Weese

Garrett, Robert and Laurie Weese

A personal journey

In my mind, Robert Weese and his wife Laurie are heroes, although they would both say their three sons — Nathan, Garrett, and Connor — are the real heroes. Robert has become an  advocate for autism — and perhaps most importantly — he’s become a person autism families seek out for direction. Laurie, too, has met the challenge. In addition to doing — as Robert describes —“an ungodly amount of research” to help her own family, she earned a master’s degree in counseling in hopes of helping others as well. Like her husband, Laurie is eager to educate people about autism.

In exploring this story, I met Trevor Stokes, a professor of graduate psychology with a charming Australian accent and a bent for explaining complex issues. He took me down the road that so many autism parents have traveled and explained how his field, Applied Behavioral Analysis, has improved the future for many. He told me about JMU’s innovative Inter-professional Autism Clinic that marries ABA with Occupational Therapy and with Speech and Language Pathology into an innovative and collaborative therapy that benefits children with autism, but also benefits their parents and JMU students as well.

I explored the role that JMU’s College of Education plays. Keri Bethune, coordinator of JMU’s autism certificate program, explained how JMU students learn through interacting with students in local classrooms — and vice versa. Keri, herself, spends countless hours in local schools directing, advising and assisting JMU students and local teachers in becoming more and more adept at what they do.

And then there was Scott Hand, director of pupil personnel services for Rockingham County Public Schools. Scott’s supervisory role not only links local families and schools to state services, but he, personally, took the time 8 years ago to introduce the Weese family to local schools.

233225 Autism Clinic-1082Through JMU’s Institute for Health and Human Services — a compassionate giant in the valley —the Weeses and other families also have the opportunity to work with professionals like Liz Richardson, occupational therapist, and Marsha Longerbeam, speech and language pathologist. Not only do they work independently and with IPAC, Liz and Marsha run a summer camp for children with autism. Liz and Marsha, like many JMU faculty, also have professional private practices, increasing the opportunities for local families to find help. Briana Priester’s Studio B for Living LLC is another. She is an instructor in the School of Music and a licensed music therapist who has worked with Garrett Weese, helping his language skills through music.

Families like the Weeses are extraordinary — and also ordinary, as I learned from JMU student Allison Lindsey, who has grown up with two siblings diagnosed with autism. In Allison I found an amazing capacity to see people with autism as valuable individuals and to meet their needs with a remarkable selflessness and compassion. I saw the same kind of caring in senior health sciences major, Carly Delaney, who has worked with Garrett Weese for multiple years as a student volunteer. She adores Garrett and the affection is returned in kind. Carly is one of many students who volunteer with these special children and young adults.

Then there was Debi Kipps-Vaughan, a licensed clinical psychologist and faculty member in graduate psychology. More than a year ago, when Julie Strunk, professor of nursing, approached her with the observation that local autism families needed extra support, Kipps-Vaughan knew exactly what to do. She and Strunk teamed up to form a support group for families with adolescents with autism. 233225 Autism Clinic-1074Every person I talked to gave me one more strand of a loosely tied and highly adaptable network of services and opportunities.

A few weeks ago, in talking with Robert Weese again, I learned about yet another: an utility locator in the Facilities management named Jack Martin, who runs a baseball league for disabled children.

Two of my favorite interviews were with Micah Hodges and Ted Aronson, JMU seniors who have autism. Their personal stories and the insight I gained into the challenges that older students face were as interesting as they were inspiring. I also met Brett Tjaden, professor of computer science, who volunteers to advise enrolled students like Micah and Ted. I learned more about young adults with autism from Matt Trybus, assistant director of disability services. His understanding of disabilities like autism offers valuable support to students like Micah and Ted. If there is an incubator of caring that pervades the Madison community and spills generously out into the local community, I found it in the autism community. As a writer, it was an amazing journey. There is no doubt that all of these individuals epitomize the very best of what it means to Be the Change.

To read the full story, “Hope for Autism” go to this link on the JMU website: http://www.jmu.edu/stories/2015/hope-for-autism.shtml

If you haven’t watched the video embedded above, scroll back! My colleagues Chris Meyers, Mike Miriello and Justin Roth did an amazing job telling JMU’s autism story.

And if you’d like to learn more about what it’s like to be a college student with autism, read “Micah and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” here: http://www.jmu.edu/stories/2015/aronson-and-hodges.shtml


Second act

Imagine spending one day staring down death, or at least considering the possibility as real. Imagine doing so for weeks, months — or years. That is what American soldiers do — every day — and it is the memory that veterans live with every day thereafter. Some experience conflict close up; others see it from a distance, but the sacrifice they sign up for when they enlist in the military is unlike any other kind of commitment. This week, as we honor Veterans, we’d like to introduce you to one JMU student with a special passion for helping her fellow veterans. 

Chris Nelson ('15) on duty at Cedar Creek

Chris Nelson (’15) on duty at Cedar Creek

Chris Nelson (’15) knows the life of a soldier. As a retired Air Force  non-commissioned officer, she has lived the military life. For more than 20 years — 20 years and one day to be exact — Chris was an airborne missions systems specialist, providing inflight communication to, from, and among planes on various missions. One of her assignments was aboard AWACS — airborne warning and control planes — for NATO. She also flew on the National Air Operations Center, which she defines as “survivable mobile command center for the president, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the secretary of defense.”

While “I did not do combat,” she says, I flew on several combat sorties….My job was up in the air.”

That, however, did not preclude making sacrifices familiar to all veterans. She was often away from her husband and three children, and the family moved around a lot — Oklahoma, Germany, Nebraska, and finally Northern Virginia. “I did a lot of traveling, a lot of deploying around the world with small children. That was difficult,” she says.

Now she’s a full-time student — a second act in life. At 20, Chris thought college was beyond her. Neither of her parents went to college, and she says, candidly: “My parents couldn’t afford to send us to school.” But after being in the military, which, she says, encourages higher education, it became a goal. Chris is the first in her family to attend college.

She understands acutely that the transition from military life to civilian life is not always smooth. The rigors of military life, the restrictions, and all the rules and regulations are left behind. “I feel like I’ve been in a box for 20 years because there are very strict rules about how to look, what you can wear, and things you can do…..I had a security clearance, so I couldn’t go to certain places….,” she says.

Chris initially thought she would pursue a degree in homeland security. That made sense. After all, it’s what she had done for two decades. Still, she says, “I didn’t think it was the best fit for my family.”

Instead — with her husband’s encouragement — Chris enrolled at Lord Fairfax Community College with a different purpose: “I’m going to take a variety of classes to try and figure out what it is that I want to do.”

top_logo_new3-21What she discovered was an interest in history. “I fell in love with history of the Shenandoah Valley — the Civil War history,” she says. So when the opportunity arose to volunteer at nearby Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park, Chris jumped at the chance.

Cedar Creek, one of the National Park Service’s newest historic parks, near Strasburg, Va., adjoins Belle Grove, the historic home of President James Madison’s sister, Nellie Madison Hite.

Her volunteer job became a full-time position, which she holds today, while at the same time managing a family and the life of a full-time student. No doubt, 20 years of military discipline allows her to juggle all of that.

By the time she earned her associates degree and enrolled at JMU, she knew she wanted to study history. But history isn’t her only pursuit. Chris is double majoring in history and psychology.

While studying history is for fun, she says, studying psychology has a deeper and more personal meaning for Chris. “You’re in a war zone seeing things the average person just wouldn’t understand., and then you come back to the real world and you’re expected to function like nothing happened. I want to be there for those people.”

NPS-logo-color.jpgShe hopes to someday be able to help veterans, some who suffer from PTSD, as well women in abusive relationships.

When she first came to JMU, she sought out other veterans.

“I am not a social person,” she admits, “and I knew that if I was going to be attending school at JMU I would need to have a group of people that I could [identify with] — someone to talk to. So I searched and found out there was a student veterans group, and I contacted them. That was not the norm…. but I knew, because of my personal situation, that I needed to have that in place before I would be able to fit in.”

She found that fit in the Student Veteran Association. This year, Chris is serving as president and through SVA, she wants to provide a place where veterans can meet and associate but also find resources for navigating higher education. The military imbues self-reliance; as a result, she says, “most veterans do not like to ask for help.” That’s where SVA can help. And for Chris, that means advocating for fellow veterans.

“They’re just certain things that we (veterans) need that the average person just doesn’t understand. For example, for the GI Bill we get our tuition paid for — and there are different kinds of GI Bills…. They’ll pay for your tuition, but every class you take has to be part of your degree plan, and they won’t pay for any classes that are outside of your degree plan.”

“Also we have a basic allowance for housing …… You get paid a certain amount for the number of credit hours you take. If you can’t get into your required classes then that amount of money is being reduced because you get paid per credit, right? There are a lot of veterans who are going to school after they get out of the military and their family is living on that. Many of the veterans have wives and children…. Some … are living off of that money and — I think it’s about $1300. So if you can imagine a family trying to live on $1300 while the veterans is going to school. It’s really important to us to be able to get into the classes that we need or we’re not going to get paid…”

That’s where SVA can help and at JMU, that need extends wide. Chris says that the male/female ratio is 64/36. Almost half — 46 percent are 31 years old or older; 36 percent are 25-30; and 18 percent are between 18 and 20.

According to Bill Wilson, director of the Madison Institute and a member of the Veterans Scholars Task Force, 210 veterans and service members are currently enrolled at JMU. In addition, 370 dependents are using post 9/11 GI benefits.

The Veterans Scholars Task Force is a group of JMU faculty working to make JMU veteran friendly. As SVA president, Chris is also a member of the task force.

As advocates for veterans, Chris says, “SVA is here to do support these veterans, to try to give them a place where they can come and get information, where they can have camaraderie with other people who are in the same path as they are, have the same kind of life experience.”

Chris has important goals for SVA that she hopes to launch during her one-year term. “My objective is to move us forward. We are in a position now where we are meeting and having the camaraderie. That’s very important, but I want to move us even further forward to where we are doing things to actually help the veterans here.”

She wants SVA to be a resource for JMU veterans and their families. “We want to be the people they come to and ask questions. We may not have the answers, but we will know who to steer them to, to answer those questions, or if they just need to have someone to sit and talk to — there’s a bond between military members and just knowing the person sitting next to you has been through or understands what you’ve been through is a huge comfort.”


Looking for veterans resources at JMU? Check out these links:



Finding eternity

Sometime after Jonathan Davis died, a man approached his mother at a service of remembrance for those who had passed. The man held a baby in his arms. “If it weren’t for Jon I would be dead,” the man told the grieving mother, “and this baby would never have been born.”

Such was the impact of the life of the late Jonathan Davis. Then — and now.

SKMBT_C22414090414170_0001A dearly beloved son

Jonathan Douglas Davis was born to Jane and Martin Davis of Charlottesville, Va., a nurse and a librarian who met while taking a class at the University of Virginia. Martin was working in the library and Jane was finishing her B.S. in nursing. Like so many of their generation, education was important, something to be sought and valued. Raised during the 1930s, the Davises owned that special perspective credited to that Greatest Generation. “We worked hard, and we saved,” Jane says. “We didn’t do things that a lot of people do. We started our marriage on a bicycle, not on two cars.”

SKMBT_C22414090414190_0001 - Version 4When Jonathan came along in 1958, the Davises became parents who devoted their lives to raising their only child, a son who never disappointed them. “He was a dearly, dearly beloved child. A good boy, a sweet boy, just an all around nice guy,” Jane remembers. “And he had a wicked sense of humor.” An original and quick sense of humor, Martin adds: “In discussing the Swiss Army Knife, I asked ten-year-old Jon what the Coast Guard calls its official knife? ‘A Coast Guard Cutter’ was his instant and surprising reply.” Martin smiles, thinking about how Jonathan was especially attuned to language and nuance — subtleties that often surprised people.

Jonathan’s natural aptitudes included people. Jane recalls her son’s extraordinary sensitivity. He was acutely aware of nonverbal cues, Martin adds. Such a perceptive nature would eventually lead to a career in clinical psychology. Jane tells of a time during the 1960s, when Jonathan was only seven or eight years old. He had gone swimming at a local pool club that barred blacks. Afterward, he told his mother unequivocally that he would not go there again. “I was proud of him,” she says. Jane wasn’t surprised though — Jonathan had a strong sense of justice. As a small child, he had scolded her for taking the paper cup that came with a fountain drink she had bought. Jane assured her young son that the paper cup was part of the price for the soda.

“I worried that I’d made him too sensitive,” Jane says. But as she looks back, it is clear that his sensitivity, compassion, and sense of justice would be keys to his later success as a counselor. His intuition about people was his strength and talent — and it was the great gift he gave to those around him.

An avid learner

From early on, Jonathan was an exceptional but non-traditional learner, Martin says. Whatever subject he took a shine to, he pursued with enormous determination to learn everything he could about it. He was drawn to the offbeat, the eclectic — subjects as varied as knives, cats, ethnic cooking, music, and great American tattoo artists, long before tattoos went mainstream. Such eclecticism was indicative of his intelligence — and his depth.

“When he first attempted to play the guitar,” Martin wrote in a posthumous tribute to his son, “I bought him a good book on the subject. He never looked at it. Rather he watched other guitarists play, practiced the same techniques himself until he had mastered them, and then improvised around them until he had made the techniques his own.”

Given such a desire to learn and blessed with an intuitive understanding of people, it is not surprising that Jonathan Davis chose to study psychology, a subject introduced to him by a high school teacher and probably reinforced by the fact that his father, a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, had majored in psychology as well.

SKMBT_C22414090414190_0001 - Version 5In the fall of 1977, Jonathan enrolled at James Madison University.   Although initially he wasn’t excited about it, Jane remembers, laughing. “He thought it was [in] a little country town with a lot of grits.” Humanity, Jon had decided by then, was divided into three categories, “jocks, grits, and freaks.” He always gravitated to those who were different. But he made friends easily, while he honed his intellect, delving deep into the study of psychology. “He learned to love JMU — and he loved the master’s program,” Jane says. “The faculty is student-oriented and you get more contact time with good professors,” Martin says. “I think Jonathan felt that way….He got a lot of respect from the faculty there.”

Lennis Echterling, professor of psychology and director of the counseling program, remembers that Jonathan had a strong interest in issues related to counseling and therapy and got involved with projects with Jack Presbury, another JMU psychology professor. “I would often come by and interrupt them as they were engaged in some great philosophical discussion,” Echterling says. “It was clear to me that when I came in I was interrupting some high level intellectual discussions. They were very much enjoying how their ideas would sparkle.”

After earning his undergraduate and master’s degrees in psychology at JMU, Jonathan was accepted into the prestigious “ Derner Institute” of Adelphi University to study for his Ph.D. in clinical psychology. Even with a Ph.D. under his belt, though, he continued taking courses. His father asked him why: “Aren’t you ready to just relax now and practice psychology?”

“No,” Martin recalls him saying, “I want to get all the knowledge and skills.”

A special insight

Jane and Martin Davis are the kind of parents who believe that children are not things to be molded but people to be unfolded. And as they watched their son unfold, they saw him become a man gifted with a special insight — and an insatiable curiosity — for people. This innate understanding of people marked his life and career.

Jon with his band 2-29-2008 2-06-20 PMThe teenage Jonathan explored music — as most teens do — and played in bands. But despite his peers’ initial assessment that he didn’t play well enough to own a Stratocaster, Jonathan proved them wrong. He worked until he mastered it, Martin remembers. Of course, Jane also played a part. She was the only mom who let the boys play in the house, she says, grinning — her generosity evinced by gouges in the living room floor where electric guitars thwanged and a refrigerator-sized amplifier boomed. And Martin had a motorcycle that he let 12- year-old Jon ride around the backyard — “and, of course, every kid in the neighborhood wanted to ride, too,” Jane adds. These were concessions that Jonathan understood and appreciated. While his friends were impressed with fancy house and cars, Jonathan understood — and voiced to his parents — that their embrace of his personal ambitions was far more important.

As a Ph.D. student, Jonathan cultivated a deep interest in people afflicted with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, choosing that as the focus of his doctoral research. He interviewed survivors of the Bataan Death March to learn all he could about the kinds of experiences that trigger PTSD and about the resilience that allows people to survive them and even thrive. Once again, Jonathan was ahead of his time. PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, as it is now termed, had not yet caught the public’s full attention.

Everything Jonathan did inched him further along that continuum of understanding people and their motivations. Between degrees, he worked as an attendant at Western State Hospital and as an alcohol counselor. He even did a stint driving a taxicab — a moving classroom of human experience.

A common struggle

SKMBT_C22414090414191_0001Beginning in his 20s, Jane remembers, Jonathan became to experience bouts of depression, a mental condition that placed him in a large group of the population. Sometimes termed “the common cold of mental illness,” clinical depression is a serious, ordinary, and yet not-fully-understood condition that impacts hundreds of thousands of people every year.

According to Echterling, clinical depression increases the risk of suicide eight fold. Few are immune, however, demographic groups have different degrees of risk. “The highest risk by age is elderly, and especially men over 65, and in particular white men over 65,” he says. For women, “suicide rates stay pretty low and overall their rates are typically three to five times less than for men.”

Discovering the hidden secrets of the more than 30,000 suicides annually in the U.S. is a laborious process, yet research and scholarly dissection of a common mental illness like depression, as well as the sometimes-precipitated tragic outcome, is an important avenue for psychologists to explore. Medical autopsies look for the physical causes of death — the “how,” Echterling says, “but the psychological autopsy is to explore the ‘why.’ It means going back to interview loved ones and getting a sense of what were the precipitating events that were going on at the time. Was there a note left behind? Or were there other indications that would suggest a higher risk for suicide? Have they had previous attempts? So when they’ve done those kind of psychological autopsies in detail, what they’ve found is that 90 percent of the completed suicides have involved some issue with a psychological disorder.”

He also points out that while teenagers have a higher risk of attempted suicides, their “success” rate is much lower than the general population. The implications of this kind of increased understanding of suicide and trauma, including PTSD, are enormous and have led to changes in clinical psychology’s approach. Echterling, who prepares clinical counselors for the field, explains one example: the need for a positive approach…

…Now there are programs to take the positive attitude with teens. When I was a teen, we would watch these scary movies about drinking and driving. And we know they were ineffective. They were scary, but they didn’t change behavior. What has been effective is campaigns like ‘friends don’t let friends drive drunk.’ That’s a positive contribution instead of trying to scare somebody which is a poor motivator … You look at what you can do to promote life. And so that leads into ‘friends don’t let friends suffer alone’ if they talk about things like death or suicide or depression….. It’s a way of using adolescence as a resource, and treating it like a resource, not something to scare, but instead, you have something to contribute to this community. You’re an important part, vitally, to be a link between someone in desperate need to receive the help that could make a difference, helping prevent suicide and promote happier life, so that’s how many of the prevention programs now are advocating for positive steps that people can be doing … in preventing suicide.

A profound shock

No matter how much one is loved or how supportive family and friends may be, sometimes people slip away.

In 1997, apparently, Jonathan’s personal battle with depression ramped up. After receiving his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Derner in February, Jonathan was accepted into a prestigious post-doctoral program in psychoanalysis at New York City’s Williams Alanson White Institute, reputed to be one of the most prominent and respected psychoanalytic training and treatment centers in the world.

And Jonathan was engaged to be married.

Although Jane and Martin knew their son had struggled with depression off and on, no one, not even his fianceé, understood the depth of that struggle. Jane doesn’t know if Jonathan had ever been officially diagnosed with clinical depression, but she knows that he had been prescribed anti-depressive medication. She knows, too, that he was surrounded by friends and family who would have known the signs. “They had all just said to relax and be cool. But nobody ever sat him down for a serious talk.” With this, Jane also raises a cautionary flag: No one, even those most knowledgeable in the field of psychology, is immune. “My wish,” she says, “is that psychologists and other health professionals will take a good look at themselves and at each other and know that suicide is a possibility in themselves.”

“In June, they came down here [to Virginia]. They were very happy,” Jane remembers. “We were very happy because Jonathan had worried us off and on over the years. And we thought, ok, Jon is ok. He has this beautiful girl, and they’re going to get married.”

By all measures, it was a happy year.

And then on July 25, Jonathan slipped out of their lives. Martin wrote, “His death came as a profound shock to everyone who knew him.”

232353 Martin and Jane Davis Photos-1016At the time of his death, Jonathan was working with mentally ill substance abusers. They were the kind of people who might make any mother nervous, Jane admits. “But after he died, I got a whole lot of scratchy notes, on torn up legal pads…..His clients had written things…..like ‘Dear Jon, I’m going to try so hard to stay clean because I know you want me to.’ ‘You have done so much to make me try to turn around my life.’ One client had brought him a string art, which she had made. That really touched my heart.”

These people weren’t stereotypes, Jane knows, “these were real human beings that my son loved — and they loved him.” Characteristic of Jonathan’s deep compassion, they would later learn that he had stopped taking his medication, Jane says, “because he didn’t want to dull his sensitivity to his patients.”

Legacy from tragedy

If he were living today, Jonathan Davis would be immensely proud of his parents. The couple has survived what Echterling calls “one of the worst traumas I can think of — to lose a child.” They have tapped into a kind of resilience that has allowed them to move ahead and to turn their personal tragedy into a kind of victory over it. Psychologists call it “counterfactual reasoning.” It is the ability to look beyond tragedy and find something positive. And it is exactly the kind of response their counselor son would have hoped for his parents.

“Pain is very people oriented,” Martin says. “I cried a lot,” Jane says, “ And I talked about him a lot.” She also sought solace in a local support group, the same kind that Jonathan might have led. “When Jon was a little boy,” she remembers, “I thought that he was the most precious child on earth, and I loved him more than anybody else ever loved their child. And then when he died, I thought, ‘my pain is worse than anyone else on earth has ever felt.’ And when I started going to Compassionate Friends, it was so apparent that everybody there loved their children the same way I did.”

The Davises found the kind of comfort their own son might have offered. Counselors, Echterling says, become extraordinarily skilled in helping people identify and hang onto those counterfactuals.

From their resilience and a desire to see Jonathan’s life continue in some way, Jane and Martin established the Jonathan Douglas Davis Memorial Scholarship. Every year it is awarded to a degree seeking graduate student enrolled in JMU’s Department of Graduate Psychology and Counseling who has a particular interest in suicide prevention. More recently, the scholarship has expanded to include students interested in Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Perhaps reflecting the Davises’ Depression-era can-do attitude, the scholarship is designed to spark tangible, practical results. For those reviewing the scholarship applications, Echterling says, “The focus becomes ‘What would they do with that?’ …. They not only have good intentions, but they have a plan.”

Such was the story of recipient Lisa Ellison (‘12M), herself touched by her own brother’s suicide. “She wanted [her project] to be something meaningful for survivors, families and friends, who’d lost somebody,” Echterling says. She organized an Out of the Darkness Walk, a campus-wide event that supports networking for survivors, understanding of suicide, and funds research into suicide prevention. After Ellison graduated, the annual campus walk continued. Last year’s walk drew some 300 walkers and raised more than $16,000 to fund research and education programs through the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Echterling says.

“We often ignore all of the contributions of people who may end their lives with suicide,” says Echterling. “They aren’t just suicide [victims]. They’re human beings with all sorts of wonderful positive qualities and contributions that enrich people’s lives.”

This is Jonathan Davis. The impact of his life goes on, and in a strange and immensely sad irony, it continues to grow, spreading out like a river that meets the sea. It endures through the lives of the hundreds of people he touched as a student, a friend, a counselor — and as a son. His life is multiplied through the lives of students whose careers will be enhanced through the memorial scholarship — and through the lives of people those students, in turn, will themselves touch.

Finding a kind of eternity

Jane and Martin are comfortable with the concept of death. They lived it when Jonathan died. It is not a stranger to them, and they choose to see it as an end with an opportunity. It’s why Jane can jokingly pose for the photographer, asking if that will work for her own obituary. No one lives forever. Even — someday — the baby offered as comfort to the grieving mother by Jonathan’s friend, a man he counseled through AA. Thinking about her own childhood in Roanoke, Va., Jane remembers a modest house that has now been torn down, on property that has been sold. Like people depart, the house is gone. But the land remains — much like the ground of Jonathan Davis’ life, a life well spent before it ended too soon. And much like seeds that survive an inferno — the kind of painful inferno the Davises know — Jonathan’s legacy will continue to grow in the fertile soil of higher education.

jmu%20jane%20martin-3.%2010-22-2009%203-27-17%20PMFor Jane and Martin, there are more sweet memories than sad ones. Like a trip to New York City, a place Jonathan loved, where he took his parents to dinner at a nice restaurant and treated them to an off-Broadway Tennessee Williams play. Jonathan was good to people. He was good to his parents, his friends.

“There is an old Native American or Mexican saying that someone truly dies the last time someone says his name,” Jane says. One hundred years from now, she knows Jonathan will be remembered. Students passing through JMU’s Department of Psychology will see his portrait on the wall, and many will open letters informing them they are the fortunate recipients of a generous scholarship.

“They can read [about Jonathan] and know about him, and there will be some student — hopefully a bunch of students — all wanting to win this prize because it will go up, up, up. And so they would have … thought a lot about Jonathan and about suicide and hopefully suicide consciousness will have grown a lot more. People who have tried it, persons whose loved ones have tried it will come out of the closet and talk about it.”

Martin and Jane Davis have found a kind of eternity in establishing the Jonathan Douglas Davis Memorial Scholarship. For generations to come, their beloved son’s legacy will continue to support scholars whose research will untangle suicide and uncover secrets about the psychology of suicide prevention.

And Jonathan’s name will continue to be spoken.


To learn more about  the Jonathan Douglas Davis Memorial Scholarship and JMU’s Departments of Psychology, Graduate Psychology and Counseling, go the embedded links.





It fuels you

Some of the beautiful Imani women

Some of the beautiful Imani women

Justina's  beadwork

Justina’s beadwork

It is hard to imagine that a world filled with so much color could harbor so much pain.  But that is the world in which many young women and girls in Uganda have found themselves. They are slaves. And their plight is tragic and heartbreaking.

Today throughout the world there are 27 million slaves — more than at any point in human history — and over 50 percent are children who are exploited in the most gruesome ways imaginable.

  • Of the 300,000 child soldiers around the world, 120,000 are estimated to be girls
  • 10 million children worldwide are engaged in some facet of the sex industry
  • Each year at least one million children, mostly girls, become prostitutes
  • The average age of victims is 11-14
  • Girls as young as 13 are peddling their bodies for as low as $1 per act in Gulu, [Uganda].*

Rescuing these women and helping them to escape and build new lives is the mission of the Zion Project. If you follow this blog, you’ll recognize the name. The Zion Project was founded in 2006 by JMU alumna Sarita Hartz Hendrickson, one of our Be the Changers.

Beginning last September, while Sarita returned stateside to build support and awareness for the the project, Brittany Dunay (’12) , a psychology graduate of JMU, stepped into her shoes as in-country director.

We learned about  Brittany recently when Victoria Dickens (’13) nominated her for Be the Change. Victoria wrote of her friend: “She is an in-country director in Africa for the Zion Project, which provides counseling and real jobs for women and children who have been rescued from human and sex trafficking situations. She gets to help these victims feel cherished and gives them a future with hope.”

Jolly, Brittany and Lucy showing off their chitenges, a garment similar to a sarong (photo by Vero)

Jolly, Brittany and Lucy showing off their chitenges, a garment similar to a sarong (photo by Vero)

Colorful varnished beads drying in the African sun

Colorful varnished beads drying in the African sun

Recently, we caught up with Brittany who is now spending her last few weeks in Uganda.

Brittany’s decision to live and work in Uganda began last spring when her psychology professor, Dr. Bill Evans, showed her class a video of about the Zion Project.

“At that point I had no idea what I was going to do after I graduated in May,” Brittany writes. “While viewing this video my heart was captivated and a fire was stirring up inside of me. My heart was breaking for women and girls I only knew through a video screen. I knew right then and there the Lord was calling me to serve him in this way.”

Motivated by her deep faith, Brittany traveled to Uganda and stepped into the role of director. “The problem these women and girls face is as big as the holes in their hearts. After  being abandoned, trafficked, tricked, used, and devalued, they are in dire need of healing from the pain,” she explains.

Some of the girls hanging out in the kitchen

Some of the girls hanging out in the kitchen

The Zion Project, a Christian ministry, provides the girls and women with a safe home and an occupation that bolsters rather than tears down their self-worth.

“After the girls were rescued from a life of danger and being swept into the sex trade, [they are] given a loving and safe home. The women are given an occupation that doesn’t involve selling their bodies,” she writes. “They all need healing. They all need to know what their true identify in Christ is and that they are valued. It is important to address this need because without healing, they would live the rest of their lives in pain, hurt and believing lies about themselves. During and after they are healed, they are able to live their lives in truth and freedom. They are then able to walk in wholeness and can reach out to others who are struggling with the same hurt they once knew.”

Brittany has watched them change. She has seen the hearts of the Ugandan girls transformed through the ministry, and she has seen transformation in her staff as well: “One of my favorite parts is having one-on-ones with the staff weekly. Watching the Lord work in the lives of these women in incredible, and knowing they are the ones leading this ministry is moving.”

Nail time a the girls home (photo by Jacky, Zion Project social worker)

Nail time a the girls home (photo by Jacky, Zion Project social worker)

It has not been an easy journey for Brittany, but it has been rich and rewarding. One challenge has been the language barrier. Although all of the staff and girls speak English, most understand only bits and pieces, she writes. “It was frustrating and challenging at first, but I’ve learned how to communicate beyond words…and learning a bit of Swahili has helped.”

Brittany defines “being the change” simply: “Love. If you want to change something outside of yourself, you need to love. In order for you to fully sacrifice yourself for others, you need to love them. Zion Project has taught me how to stop for the one. If I did not love the women staff, girls and locals in Uganda, I would guarantee you I would have cut my trip early. This serving challenges you. When I thought of sacrificing before [I went], I would think that I’d be left with little to give. After working with Zion Project, I learned that the more love you give, the more love you receive. It fuels you.”

And it changes you, Brittany writes: “I have been most surprised at the amount of personal seasons my 10-month experience holds. I have  been growing at the speed of light in many unexpected ways.”

Brittany will return to the United States next month. The psychology graduate from Ashburn, Va., is eager to see her family. She’s number three out of six siblings who have supported her during her time in Africa. But the Brittany who’ll return isn’t the same one who left. Her year abroad has changed her as well as the women and girls of Uganda.

And they are all changed for the better.

*from the Zion Projects website: http://www.zionproject.org

And to read more about Sarita Hartz Hendrickson and the Zion Project, click the embedded link to read Elizabeth Holena’s (’07) story.

Update: In the comment section, you’ll read a note from Rachel Dawson (’13) about a similar story she wrote on Brittany and Sarita. Check it out here (go to page 8): http://issuu.com/curiomag/docs/curio_2013

Unless otherwise indicated, photos were taken by Brittany Dunay (’12).

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