Steamboat Springs Joe Bell left Steamboat Springs on foot Friday morning, pushing his belongings in a three-wheeled car toward Rabbit Ears Pass. The Oregon man is in the midst of a journey of spiritual cleansing layered with grief and a strong will, in the wake of his son Jadin’s death in February, to dissuade people from bullying.
Jadin Bell had been tormented by school bullies in his hometown of La Grande, Ore. He was 15 years and six months old when he hanged himself Jan. 19 and died two weeks later, leaving his family, friends and teachers to wonder how his death might have been prevented. Jadin was gay and had come out to his understanding family, including his mother, Lola, and two brothers during his freshman year in high school.
“My son didn’t choose to be gay. My son was different at a very young age,” Joe Bell said Thursday. “He told his family he was gay because he knew they would accept him. I hugged him and kissed him on the cheek every day. I was proud of him.”
But not everyone in his community understood Jadin nor his desire to be a school cheerleader. He was bullied, especially in his physical education classes.
"You don’t find all this out until afterward,” Bell said. “They were harassing him in the gym and locker room both, with cyber stuff and cussing” at him when passing him on the street. “He was a happy kid when he came home. I don’t know if he was ashamed or didn’t want to hurt us or bother us with it; he was prideful.”
La Grande is a town of a little more than 13,000 people in a beautiful agricultural valley between the Blue and Wallowa mountain ranges in far Eastern Oregon.
After his son died, Bell laid in bed for two weeks thinking suicidal thoughts of his own. But his complex emotions coalesced, and he determined a course of action. He would walk from Oregon to New York City, where Jadin had longed to live, and along the way, he would talk with youths and adults about the tragedy that can result from bullying.
“It was either lie in bed like I was and die or fight back. It came to me to walk. Just walk,” Bell said. “I needed to deal with this. I need to find a way to make a positive out of this. I didn’t plan on being a speaker right away, but I ended up taking the ball and speaking.”
Bell left his job of 17 years at a Boise Cascade plywood plant with company support through continued insurance and set out on his journey of healing and hope.
He talked to adults at a school in Boise, Idaho, he said, where the faculty was aware bullying was taking place. And he talked to groups in Salt Lake City. While in Steamboat, Bell talked to youngsters at the Sk8 Church, Boys and Girls Club and the It Takes Courage anti-bullying group.
“I talked to them about respecting each other and respecting themselves,” Bell said. “I let young adults know that tomorrow is another day. If you’re having a bad day, know a better day is going to come.”
One of the things he learned from hospital personnel in the wake of his son’s death is that the human brain is not fully matured until about age 20, so his son did not have all of the skills and cognitive abilities he needed to cope with the bullying.
“He threatened suicide six months before his death. We had him in counseling and everything. He couldn’t see his life in front of him,” Bell said.
After clearing Rabbit Ears Pass, hopefully by the end of the day Friday, Bell and a companion he met along the way will continue along U.S. Highway 40 to where a bigger challenge awaits: crossing Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park.
With every mile he logs and every friendly encounter he experiences, Bell is feeling his faith in humanity being restored. Especially uplifting during his week in Steamboat was the offer of a free luxury condo at Edgemont from a benefactor in New York.
“It’s a very spiritual cleansing when you walk. It helps get your endorphins going,” Bell said. “You still get some motorists who scream at you going by, but people are great overall. I’ve had nothing but wonderful experiences with everyone I’ve met.”
Bell is working to raise awareness about bullying through his nonprofit, Faces for Change, and another called Excuse Me While I Wake Up the World.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com
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