LaKeisha Barron-Brown, a mother whose 21-year-old son died from COVID-19 last year, is “turning sorrow to service” by using his memory to educate others on the importance of vaccination.
Jon’Tavese O’mari Brown died Oct. 26 after contracting COVID-19 while being hospitalized for kidney failure. His mother remembers him as a kind, energetic young man and a community youth leader.
“Jon was a very charismatic individual. He was — from a mother’s standpoint — he was always giving to other people and not himself,” Barron-Brown said. “He was a giver, by nature. That’s sort of who Jon was, the mission that I have now is to continue that legacy for him and educate on the importance of vaccination, especially if you have other health conditions.”
Jon was not vaccinated when he contracted the virus, his mother said. On Saturday, she joined with the Partnership of African American Churches to have a vaccination event during a screening of a documentary of Jon’s life at Bream Presbyterian Church, on Charleston’s West Side.
Barron-Brown said the goal of the event was to educate people who might not yet be vaccinated against COVID-19 on the importance of doing so.
“One thing I think we’ve seen is that, here in the African American community, there is the fear of the unknown, of history repeating itself of when, in the past, vaccinations or things like that have caused harm. I think we have to work to eliminate that fear,” Barron-Brown said. “The only way to eliminate that fear is through education. We need to change the narrative — not just in the African American community, but in the community as a whole.”
COVID-19, she continued, doesn’t discriminate against who it infects or kills.
“When COVID first happened, we heard that young people were invincible, that they could keep living their lives the way they did. Losing a legacy in the community at age 21 was eye-opening, I believe,” Barron-Brown said. “For COVID, it doesn’t really matter your age, it doesn’t matter your race, your socioeconomic background. So now we need to educate past that fear and show people the importance of getting a vaccine for themselves and those around them.”
Charleston City Councilman Larry Moore coached Jon when he attended Capitol High School. He graduated in 2018 after setting a record and earning a state title for running the 2×400 in track and field.
“Jon was an uplifter — he truly was the life of the party, and so positive. What his mom is doing in his memory — turning sorrow into service — I love that, and it’s great for the city and great for everyone,” Moore said. “A lot of these younger kids, they’re kind of stuck in their ways a little bit. She’s showing the kids to take things seriously. COVID-19 is real, everything in life is real. They can see that through someone they looked up to.”
Jon was the father of a 1-year-old son when he died.
“He was his heart,” Barron-Brown said.
Jon was also passionate about sports, his mother said. He was always looking to help and encourage other student athletes in the community. When COVID-19 started in 2020, he launched The Jungle, a three-on-three basketball tournament attended by people across the Kanawha Valley, and even the state.
“It was like nothing ever seen in the state before,” Moore said.
Jeff Biddle, who was Jon’s youth pastor and who is the current director of Midian Leadership Project, an after-school program on Charleston’s West Side, said Jon and his friends were a large part of the inspiration that started the program.
“They were a wonderful bunch of kids who made an agreement with each other to hold each other accountable, to graduate, to do great things with their lives,” Biddle said. “Jon was a really energetic guy. All I know how to say is that we really miss him. His memory is a very large presence in the minds and hearts of his friends and the people who knew him.”
Over the several months following Jon’s death, Barron-Brown put her emotions onto paper, writing a journal-style book called “Loss of Self: Turning Sorrow into Service.”
It includes quotes, self-guided questions and writing excerpts centered around recovering after such a devastating loss. Barron-Brown will have signed copies of the book available at Saturday’s event. She hopes the writings help people who have experienced any kind of loss.
“As a grieving mother, I will always grieve the loss of my son, but I know I cannot stay in that mind and be effective. This was me indulging myself, putting those thoughts down,” Barron-Brown said. “Everyone has lost themselves at some point — through a relationship, death, childhood trauma. I think everyone lost themselves a little bit in this pandemic, and we need to support each other in getting back.”