Josh Jones sometimes reaches down to feel the scars on his legs, the skin still slightly numb to his touch.
It’s the physical reminder of when Jones, then a high school senior, was shot twice in his English class on May 7, 2019, after leaping from his desk to disarm a classmate threatening to open fire.
Jones says he doesn’t think about the shooting inside the STEM School Highlands Ranch all that often. But when he runs his fingers over those scars, he’s reminded of how blessed he is that he’s still here, that he can run and jump and walk through northern Colombia, preaching the gospel of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“I’ve really come to the conclusion that, as terrible as it was, it’s helped my life,” Jones said. “It has helped me realize what I wanted to do and how much I want to help people.”
It’s been one year since two teenage students attempted to shoot up Jones’s English class. One year since 18-year-old Kendrick Castillo was killed as he tackled a shooter, saving his classmates. One year since Jones and his friend Brendan Bialy joined Castillo to take down the shooter. One year since Jones called his mother as he held down a gunman, telling her that he was bleeding, but otherwise okay.
Faith and a newfound sense of purpose have helped Jones cope over the past year, even as he ponders — without answers — why he and his friends have had to deal with this tragedy at their age and how others don’t have to know what it feels like.
Faith, service and reflecting on the day that changed his life
As many of his friends from the STEM School went to college last fall, Jones flew to Colombia for a church mission. Many Latter-day Saints, when they reach 18, participate in two-year missionary programs around the world.
For Jones, that meant walking the streets of Monteria, a city of roughly 500,000 people near Colombia’s northern coast, preaching, conducting services and working with the locals. Four months into the mission, the new coronavirus pandemic forced Jones to come home, but he hopes to soon return to finish his service.
The shooting crystalized his desire to help others, Jones said. After his mission, he plans to go through EMT training and eventually pursue a career as a registered nurse or physician’s assistance.
The religious beliefs instilled in him through the church have helped Jones try to make sense of the shooting.
“The faith I have in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has allowed me to really overcome some of the challenges of being shot at and having that type of security taken away,” he said.
Josh Lewis was Jones’s church supervisor last May and remembers rushing to the teen’s house after he heard the news.
“I’m about to break down in tears, and Josh is like, ‘I’ll get counseling. I’ll understand this a big deal and I know something horrible happened,’” Lewis said. “Here I am supposed to be the adult, and this incredible young man is handling it better than I was at that moment, certainly.”
The way Jones reacted in the wake of the school shooting just proved what Lewis already knew: That Jones was mature beyond his years, level-headed and driven.
“He utilized his own inner strength,” Lewis said. “Being able to cope with this tragedy, to be able to help others, to be stronger, more determined and focused.”
“Normal is very different now”
When he was in Colombia, Jones kept in touch with his high school friends, mostly through email. They wrote about their plans, catching each other up on new routines. They rarely discussed the shooting.
“We don’t dwell on the past,” Jones said. “We’re just moving forward. We know when we need to think about it and when to talk about it. Those times are few and far between. Just continuing to encourage each other to move on.”
John and Maria Castillo, Kendrick’s parents, have been following Jones’s journey from Colorado, receiving pictures and updates on his travels. They have been eager to hear about the various endeavors of their son’s friends, reveling in their successes.
“I often say to my wife, ‘Kendrick would be so proud of his friends and what they’re doing,’” John Castillo said.
The 19-year-old hasn’t followed the criminal cases of the two classmates charged with in connection with the shooting, aside from occasional updates from his parents. He’s confident the two teens — one who has already pleaded guilty, the other awaiting trial — will go to prison.
Despite Jones vocalizing all the positives that have come from the shooting, he acknowledged that “normal is very different now that I’ve been shot at. Because of this event, normal is relative. Normal is no longer the same as it was before.”
At 19, Jones struggles for answers on why school shootings happen and how to stop more. One thing he knows for sure — he will never forgot Kendrick Castillo.
On the days when the shooting creeps into his thoughts, he focuses on his friend.
“Without Kendrick’s sacrifice, I may not be here,” Jones said. “My life would have been very different without him.”
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