Remembering Johnna Laird

By Kathy Hebert, FCSN Parent

A light from our family is gone, a voice we love is stilled. A place is vacant in our hearts that never can be filled.

When someone you love becomes a memory, the memory becomes a treasure.  Johnna Laird was truly a treasure within our FCSN community and our time with her was too short.  Johnna had a big smile, made every moment a teachable moment, and her enthusiasm could fill a room.  She was grateful to find Friends of Children with Special Needs; a community where her daughter Kendra has found hope, love, respect, support and a place to dream.  

Please enjoy these stories from four people who knew and worked with Johnna in various capacities at FCSN.  Their memories are introduced with quotes that articulate and capture what an amazing woman Johnna Laird was.

As Benjamin Franklin once wrote “Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” 

In her tribute, Helen Chou recalls her experience of working with Johnna:

I first met Johnna when I joined FCSN’s newsletter team in 2018. Despite her busy full time job, Johnna somehow managed to contribute several articles, as well as edit all the articles others had written for the newsletter. I remember during our brainstorming meetings, Johnna could only join us during her lunch breaks, but she often took charge and took notes on every possible idea from every participant, efficiently using every single minute of her time. After I had expressed interest in advocating for Friend’s Coffee and Tea to open a shop in the East Bay, Johnna passionately communicated with me several possibilities of what we can do to get this idea rolling. She was such a passionate advocate for the special needs community, she had so much to give, and she wanted to do so much more. She is a doer and she is an inspiration to us all.

There is no power on earth that can neutralize the influence of a high, pure, simple and useful life.
~ Booker T. Washington

Wei Jen Hsia shares her memories of writing with Johnna for the FCSN Newsletter:

Johnna and I joined FCSN’s newsletter team in 2014.  She was the key editor of the team and author of many featured stories and event coverage. During our team meetings at Panera Bread, we could always count on Johnna, with her boundless passion and energy, to come up with a long list of topics and ideas for new articles.

As an English teacher and tutor, Johnna always held a high standard in editing articles for the team. Once, after proofreading a draft of the newsletter several times, she joked that she should stop reading, since she would inevitably find more improvements to make. Johnna also helped many youth reporters with preparing interview questions, providing advice and mentorship to help them become better writers.

Even when she was undergoing a harsh period of treatment, weeks before passing, she still ended one of her emails with, “PS I will let you know if I CANNOT do the article. Still planning to write it.” Her passion and dedication to FCSN will always be a long-lasting inspiration to all of us in the newsletter team

The life of one we love is never lost. Its influence goes on through all the lives it ever touched.~ ~ Christopher Holloway

In 2021, FCSN celebrated its 25th anniversary.  To commemorate this milestone, Jim Chiao and Johnna partnered together and wrote the words to “Friends with Dreams” which debuted at the 25th Anniversary Gala in November.  In his memory, Jim Chiao tells how the song came together through the eyes of two parents with special needs children.

I have worked with Johnna many years ago as editors on FCSN Newsletter. The last time we worked together was on the collaboration of FCSN’s 25th anniversary song, and that experience was also the most memorable: Earlier in 2021, we had the opportunity to write the lyrics of a new song for FCSN. Without knowledge, Johnna and I each wrote one; and they were as different as night and day. However, none of us was quite satisfied with our own version, and it was easy to decide to work together.

Over a period of weeks, we exchanged many emails and decided to merge the two versions together by taking two verses from my version and the chorus from her version. Then finally, working with Anna at a Zoom meeting, we busily hammered out the final details with our combined creativity. 

Once the lyrics were completed, we still need a song title. In her last email, Johnna wrote: “If we ever sing the song at Rotary or some place outside the community, I think the audience may connect Friends with Dreams to Friends of Children with Special Needs — I think our kids think of themselves as friends and indeed they have dreams of their own.” Based on her input, the decision on the title of the song “Friends with Dreams” was made.

The final lyrics were written from parents’ point of view and illustrate a dream community we built for our children with special needs. In this song, we can still hear her passionate words:

They need a place
Where they can shine
With love and hope
Is it their time?

She had the heart that cared completely. She had the smile that brought so much pleasure. She had the love that brought joy beyond measure.

In this last tribute, Sylvia Yeh recalls when she first met Johnna and how FCSN played a role in developing their lifelong friendship.

I’ve known Johnna since her daughter, Kendra, received FCSN Supported Living Services and attended the Adult Day Program in 2013. Johnna was the main editor for FCSN Newsletter and Gala Program Book. She also helped us with one grant writing. Johnna was a straightforward, fast paced person who cut to the chase when carrying conversations (maybe I should refer to them as “talks” as they were usually short). Johnna had a very tight schedule so we usually emailed each other or arranged phone talks after 10:30 pm. Yet I found her as a true, genuine friend who had a warm heart, cared deeply, lived passionately and inspired others to live a full life.

Johnna was a strong advocate who looked out best for Kendra. Her husband and she “traveled throughout the San Francisco Bay Area… to visit promising programs in Alameda, Santa Cruz, Napa, Contra Costa Counties and even out of state” until they found a home at FCSN for Kendra. Johnna shared at FCSN Gala in 2016 “There are no words to express the depth of my appreciation to FCSN staff, their way of interacting, and all they do to go above and beyond.” “We owe the deepest debt of gratitude to the 10 founding families, the pioneers who nearly 20 years ago who without any model or roadmap created a path that has led to this lifeline that is FCSN”. Johnna truly treated FCSN as an extended family and supported us in many ways, from staff appreciations, program nominations, FCSN publicity promotions to fundraising efforts. 

Johnna was a great writer and reporter. I often was too busy to write articles. She would arrange a phone call for me to put thoughts in bullet points, then she connected dots to a full article. I then added more paragraphs to express myself more. She did the final proofreading. With two people’s efforts, my articles were “born”. I always admire Johnna’s journalism skills. She interviewed people to collect information and explore different perspectives. She wrote clearly and simplified complex information in her reports which were sent to local newsletters to promote FCSN.

What I miss the most about Johnna, is her kindness and enthusiasm in promoting humanity. She inspired me to do my best. Though I didn’t see her or talk to her very often; the moment we met felt like we had known each other profoundly. We didn’t say much as “the language of friendship is not words but meaning.”

C:\Users\mom2g\Documents\Johnna, Kendra, & Bill.jpg

Johnna with husband Bill and daughter Kendra

Although we grieve and miss Johnna more than words can say, this is not good-bye.  Johnna would want us to continue with our dreams for the FCSN community.  We will feel her smiling presence, know that she is our biggest cheerleader and we will be better for that.  Now, it’s our turn to live our lives to the fullest while we keep Johnna in our hearts and her legacy alive.

I won’t be far away, for life goes on. Just listen with your heart and you’ll hear my love all around you.

Authors note:  If you’d like to read articles by Johnna, they are included in the FCSN’s 25th Anniversary Book, Friends of Children with Special Needs – Building a Dream Community.

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