Raise for Rowyn: After Tragic Death of Toddler, Tenino Mothers Unite to Help Others

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Photos: Cassie Miller, left, tears up as she talks about the death of Rowyn Johnson while sitting next to the girl’s mother, Brynn Johnson, at Johnson’s home in Tenino on Friday. Miller was involved in the accidental death of Rowyn on Sept. 16, 2014. Miller and Johnson started Raise for Rowyn, a charity that raises funds to help families that suffer the loss of a child. Today, Burger Claim in Grand Mound will donate all of its proceeds from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. to the Raise for Rowyn charity. (Photos by Pete Caster / pcaster@chronline.com)

After Tragedy, Tenino Mothers Unite to Help Others

By Dameon Pesanti / dpesanti@chronline.com |

Rowyn JohnsonBefore the morning of Sept. 16, 2014, Tenino residents Brynn Johnson and Cassie Miller, both 31, were living lives many people dream of having.

They had been friends for about eight years and were married to men who’d known each other since high school. They each had good careers and were sharing in the milestones of being enamored parents of young children.

Miller and Johnson’s birthdays were just a couple of months apart, and so were the terms of their second pregnancies. Their 3-year-old boys attended the same preschool, so it made sense for the boys to ride there together.

Johnson usually chauffeured, but the night of Sept. 15, feeling a mix of responsibility and adoration, Miller sent a text message to Johnson that she wanted to do the driving.

“You want to help out,” Miller said. “I picked them up one other time and they were talking about some big dump truck.”

rowyn5“It’s cute to listen to their 3-year-old boy conversations,” Johnson said. “I wanted to take them to school, ’cause it’s a big thing. But I was like, no, this is Cassie’s way of helping out. This is her part.”

It’s a conversation they wish never happened.

As she alway did, Johnson’s blonde-haired 17-month-old daughter Rowyn got her out of bed just after 5 a.m. Together they made a special breakfast and then rolled around the living room floor before she got her son ready for school.

“Me and Rowyn literally had the best couple hours together,” Johnson said. “It plays in my head slow-motion everyday — the good and the bad, every detail. I couldn’t erase it if I wanted to.”

A few hours later, Miller arrived.

Rowyn JohnsonIn the commotion of loading the boys, Rowyn had slipped out of sight. When Miller rolled out of the driveway, she had no idea the girl was in her path.

Rowyn was pronounced dead at the scene.

When the two women explain what happened and the grieving process that has followed, they tend to fill in each other’s thoughts and complete each other’s sentences.

Johnson’s driveway was filled with police cars, ambulances and fire trucks.

For about three hours Johnson and her husband, Cody, sat in the ambulance with Rowyn  and tried to shoo off detectives while they held their daughter.

“How do you say goodbye, you know?” she asked.

rowyn4Miller said she sat in the grass lost in a daze while the drama played out around her. Detectives asked her questions and police photographed the scene.

“We were completely in shock,” Miller said.

Each woman thought they were going to jail, but for different reasons.

At one point, Cody approached one of the detectives to make sure Miller wasn’t in trouble.

No charges were ever filed against her. In a statement to the press, Lt. Cliff Ziesemer, of the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office, described it as “a tragic accident.”

Within 24 hours, Johnson’s cousin set up an account on the crowdfunding website GoFundMe.com. It quickly earned more than $30,000. For the next couple days, the families only communicated through text messages as they tried to make sense of what happened and how to move forward.

Although the public donations made a huge impact, the women worried the accident would ruin them in the eyes of the community and spell the end their friendships and ultimately marriages.

rowyn7“I was thinking, ‘What if someone burns my house down?’” Miller said.

About two days later, the Johnsons told the Millers in person that things were OK between them. For the next few weeks, Miller waited for them to change their minds.

“I think we both went through that — thinking everybody is going to hate us — and you don’t really care about anything at that point,” Johnson said.

In the wake of such an enormous tragedy, it would be understandable for the Johnsons to never forgive, but instead it only brought the families together.

“I never had those feelings toward her,” Johnson said. “We’re bonded now in this horrible way for life, but I love her. We’re just gonna have to heal together to get through it.”

At first, the Johnsons wanted to protect their friend’s name, but Miller said it was important to her that people knew the story.

rowyn6“I can’t hide my role in the situation,” she said. “I want to be open. I want to talk about it, and have them know if there in a similar situation they can talk to me. I’m responsible for the death of a baby and that’s a lot to carry around every day.”

For about the first week, the trauma made it difficult to leave the bedroom, let alone be cordial with the visitors that came to pay their respects.

A few days after the accident, pastor Jim Ford, of the New Day Christian Center in Tenino, came by. He did so at the request of a friend, but with a high amount of reluctance. He didn’t know the Johnsons, but he had been in their shoes before. About four years ago, his own 17-year-old daughter was killed in front of his house while she was on her way to school. He knew how difficult it was to have well-meaning but intrusive strangers come knocking.

“That shared tragedy as far as us losing children is what allowed me, if you will, the ability and maybe the permission to say, ‘You know what, I feel your pain,’ and have it be credible,” he said. “I just spent about a little more than an hour reassuring them that everything will go forward.”
Johnson was up in her closet in the midst of her lowest moment when he arrived, but something told her to go outside and hug this stranger who was coming into her yard.

rowyn3“He’s really offered so much emotional support to both Cassie and I, that I can I say I love him as a friend and a pastor,” Johnson said.
Johnson grew up in a church-going family but, before the accident, hadn’t gone in years. Miller’s family didn’t go very often. Both had always believed in God and prayed from time to time, but rediscovering their faith and the community of the church has played a big role in healing.

In the weeks after the accident, both of the women took about a month off of work. Miller later returned, but took a demotion and now works part-time.

She said the donations from the GoFundMe.com account were “extremely humbling” and relieved a huge burden while they took time off and paid for Rowyn’s funeral services and headstone.

Johnson and Miller felt like they needed to do something to honor Rowyn, but weren’t entirely sure of what to do.
Then Johnson heard the story of a mother who had lost all three of her children at the same time but didn’t have the money to pay for a proper funeral.

“It just broke my heart,” she said. “This woman had nothing, not even financial means to provide a headstone for her children. That’s all I have left to honor my daughter with is a headstone.”

They had found their cause.

Last October, Miller and Johnson set to work organizing a 5k walk/run, then a dinner and silent auction to be held on April 18, the day after Rowyn’s birthday. Ultimately, they created a charitable organization called Raise for Rowyn. The proceeds from the events will go to help families pay the medical bills or final expenses of children. The auction is already sold out.

The organization itself is about building a community and support network for people connected to a child’s death.
On their website, the women blog candidly about the painful journey that is the healing process, and through social media they’ve gotten in touch with women from around the country that have also lost their children.

“At first it was a little bit difficult. It was like, ‘Oh, my God, it’s out there,’” Miller said. “But then you get the feedback and people like it and people are identifying with it in different ways … It inspires them, and if they can come together and …”

“Keep going,” Johnson said. “I’m in constant contact through Facebook and it makes me feel better too. And I think it helps the other families, too.”

Reserving venues, finding people to help with the website, getting donations — even connecting with families in need — has gone so smoothly that both Miller and Johnson said they believe God, maybe Rowyn herself, have been behind the progress.

Whatever is behind it, it has brought them closer together and helped them find solace through building community around a tragedy most people would rather never think about.

“Together we just know it’s right,” Miller said. “Before in my life, I never understood doing God’s work, but I really do feel like this is it.”