Far from his home in Oregon, Joe Bell is sitting at a booth at Lucky Slice in Ogden, Utah, looking at a picture on his phone. On the left is Joe’s 13-year-old son, Joseph, who has his arm around one of Joe’s other sons, Jadin. It has been just more than four months since Jadin committed suicide. [read my post HERE]
After a few seconds, Joe Bell puts the phone back in his pocket, steps outside and heads east, starting the 49th day of his walk across the country to honor his son—who was literally bullied to death—and to raise awareness about bullying and youth suicide.
The night before, Joe spoke to a group of strangers in the basement of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ogden. He was there as a guest of the OUTreach Resource Center, a community center and support group for LGBT teens and young adults, to share Jadin’s story.
When Joe finished speaking at the OUTreach gathering, some of the students in the room shared their own stories of being bullied at school and at home. One spoke of being beaten and verbally abused by family members when he came out. As he finished his story, Joe offered what consolation he could.
“You’re a good man,” Joe told him. “Know inside yourself that it’s gonna be OK.”
That moment was just one that was repeated throughout the evening. Eighty percent of the people who come to OUTreach don’t have a supportive adult like Joe at home. Which may explain why, in this country, suicide is the third-leading cause of death among teens and young adults. In Utah, it is the second-leading cause.
Joe and his wife raised three sons and a daughter in La Grande, Oregon, and it was just last year that Jadin, his middle son, came out as gay; Jadin was a freshman in high school at the time.
“I knew he was different at a very young age. We love our children, and we raised our children to love who they are.”—Joe Bell
And while Joe raised his kids with a passion for the activities he enjoyed, like hunting, after coming out to his father, Jadin then announced that he wanted to start cheerleading.
“I just about fell out of my chair,” Joe said, though his support of his son, and what his son wanted to do, never wavered. But it was when Jadin began cheerleading that things got worse for him. Joe, watching his son from the stands, saw the harassment Jadin endured, and he knew it was much worse when he wasn’t at the games.
“I just watched him deteriorate,” Joe said. Jadin began to see a counselor to deal with depression, made worse by the harassment and bullying he suffered, and for a while he seemed better, even if his situation at school didn’t improve. “Our school and administration do not know how to deal with the bullying problem,” Joe said.
On January 19, 15-year-old Jadin tried to hang himself on a school play structure; some passersby noticed his body and called for help. He was taken across the state to Doernbecher Children’s Hospital where he stayed for two weeks. When it became clear that he would not recover, Jadin was taken off life support and died on February 3rd.
Jadin's story is just one of many stories of LGBTQ youth that are being bullied in schools by students, teachers, administrators and other parents, and Joe Bell, having lost his son, wants it to stop.
After Jadin’s death, Joe was lost; he’d seen, first hand, the harassment his son endured, and he began to feel as though he’d failed as a father. He began thinking a lot about Jadin, reflecting on an eighth-grade trip Jadin had taken to New York City. For Jadin, that trip was the highlight of his all-too-short life; he began to dream of going to college in New York.
Sadly, that dream was never realized.
But, for Joe, he realized the trip to New York City could be made again, this time in Jadin’s honor, and to talk with schools and churches about bullying, and homophobia, and the loss of so many young people in this country.
“It was either give up or fight back. I’m a fighter.”—Joe Bell
So Joe began training for his cross-country walk; it was during this training, and through the help of family friend, Bud Hill, that Joe Bell found Faces for Change, an organization which seeks to educate others about harassment and bullying; Faces For Change is supporting Joe throughout the walk.
For Joe, the walk is a time to remember his son, but it is also a way to start a dialogue about bullying and suicide. And while Joe has received all kinds of support along the way—his shoes are donated and he had a book filled with all sorts of encouragement from people he’s met—he has also come across some anger.
North of Tremonton, Utah, a Catholic bishop stopped to offer Joe a ride and, after hearing Joe’s story, the bishop dropped him off with a pamphlet on “the sin” of the gay lifestyle.
That kind of talk is especially hurtful to Joe, who prides himself on being a proud Christian, travelling with a notebook filled with Bible verses on every page. And yet, when Faces for Change was trying to find a place to hold the send-off party, three churches turned down the organization’s request.
I guess the idea of children being bullied to death is of no concern’ or maybe it’s just the LGBTQ children they don’t care about.
But, this kind of homophobia, and ignorance, doesn’t stop Joe Bell. He has made it a point to stop and speak in any town where he’s been warned that he might experience some intolerance.
After leaving Ogden, Joe will head to Salt Lake City, where his family will meet him, and he can relax for a couple of days. Then he goes on to Denver, then Kansas, then New York.
New York; for Jadin. And to make us aware that his son, like the sons and daughters of so many, have been bullied to death and we need to make it stop.