‘The journey is long’: Columbine survivor’s message for UNC Charlotte community

Columbine survivor's message for UNC Charlotte

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - The fatal shooting at UNC Charlotte Tuesday claimed the lives of two students, but for many others and their families, it will take years to recover from physical and emotional wounds.

Members of the community and those around the nation continue to share in their grief with those affected by the shooting, but there’s a group of people who know exactly how the survivors are feeling.

WBTV’s Jamie Boll spoke with a survivor from the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School. Kacey Johnson, who hid under a table and was shot, says it has been a long road to recovery.

She shared her message about healing and hope to the UNC Charlotte community.

“It takes me right back to being in the library at Columbine. It’s this club that we’re in that nobody wants to sign up for, and sadly the club keeps growing,” Johnson said.

Twenty years later, Johnson says she’s reached a place where she has grown so much that recounting her story of healing doesn’t take her back to a bad place, but she still feels for the people going through it because she knows what their journey will look like.

Despite Johnson being injured physically, she says it’s the emotional injuries that take longer to heal and recover from.

“So, the physical injuries - while devastating - do tend to heal quite well. The emotional and mental injuries are much more difficult. They can take so many years to heal,” she says.

The trauma associated with surviving traumatic events can leave the survivors learning how to readjust to life. Johnson, who was 17 at the time of the Columbine shooting, says she suffered from severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“As I got more removed from the incident itself, I was able to see the good things that were coming out of something so horrible. And I was starting to be able to choose to step away from the fear. And to choose the freedom from all that those boys intended on my life,” Johnson said.

When asked to give some advice to the families and survivors from the deadly shooting at UNC Charlotte Tuesday, Johnson says to cling onto hope and goodness.

A candlelight vigil was held on campus at UNC Charlotte to remember those lost and injured during the campus shooting.
A candlelight vigil was held on campus at UNC Charlotte to remember those lost and injured during the campus shooting. (Source: WBTV News)

“One of the more amazing things about when these incidents happen, is the community that can gather around. And while people who were not there cannot fully understand what the people heard or saw or smelled or felt, they want to love on them. And they want to bring them back into a place of goodness. And really, it can be a daily choice to find the good things," Johnson said. "The journey is long. It’s hard. But it’s so worth it to choose freedom from fear and freedom from letting the intentions behind these events control our life.”

Johnson says these situations bring out the hero in some people. She says several people helped students like herself get on their feet and run to safety.

Riley Howell of Waynesville, NC is being remembered as a hero in the fatal campus shooting. Sources say Howell was in the classroom and jumped on the shooter in an attempt to stop him once he opened fire.

‘He died a hero.’ Student killed at UNCC jumped on shooter, saved lives

She says its that goodness that people should cling onto when healing from Tuesday’s shooting.

Johnson, now a mom of four, says not all of her children know what happened to her. She says that will come at the right time for each child.

Her children have gone through lock downs and lock outs and says those are typically one of the more difficult healing moments on her journey.

“I just have to believe that the goodness that surrounded me when I was in the library is also available for my children and that they leave the house every morning knowing that mommy and daddy love them. And that that love will spill out onto other people,” she says.

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