We Lost a True Forest, Climate, and Justice Hero

James Curtis “JC” Woodley passed away on October 5, 2022. JC was a beloved member of the Dogwood family. He served on our board, participated in protests, was a member of FOREST Circle, and appeared in several Dogwood videos. Until his retirement, JC was a field biologist for the EPA. He was also the founder of the nonprofit JAPRI. We wanted to honor his memory and his legacy by sharing some of our personal stories and remembrances.

FOREST Circle. JC Woodley stands in the front row with a blue sweatshirt and cane.

Remembrances from Emily Zucchino, Director of Community Engagement

I’m so fortunate I got to know JC well over the eight years we worked together. I first met him at a Sierra Club meeting where I gave a presentation on the impacts of the wood pellet industry on forests and communities. After the presentation, JC told me what a fire this had lit for him. He truly knew the magic of forests. He turned to the woods as a child growing up in Northampton County. He watched in horror as the beautiful forests of his childhood were cut down and chopped into wood pellets.

JC Woodley in Congaree National Forest at a board retreat

JC was incredibly smart and talented. He worked for years at the EPA. He brought those skills with him to the forest protection movement. But what I most remember JC for is his heart. Any project he took on was out of love and passion. He always brought his whole self. In the time I knew JC, he accomplished so much. He brought the issue of forest protection to some of the highest levels of major environmental groups. And he loved people just as much as he did forests. He launched his own nonprofit, JAPRI (Jail and Prison Rehabilitation Information). JAPRI addresses climate change through the lens of the social and environmental injustices that BIPOC and other marginalized communities face.

JC encouraged me to always make sure our spaces were ADA compliant. To make sure our activities had several ways for people to engage.

As JC took on roles with other organizations, we would make time to connect about once a month on a long call. We ended these calls with a renewed feeling of inspiration and purpose. JC talked about his Dogwood family, and it truly felt like family with him. He is one of the most genuine, kind people I have had the privilege of knowing.

The last time I talked with JC, he was in good spirits. His doctor had approved him to travel, and he was planning to join us at a FOREST Retreat in North Carolina. We were both so excited. I was just devastated when I heard the news that he had passed.

I will miss JC dearly as a friend and as a colleague. I’ll be sure to continue to infuse my work with the passion and lessons that JC brought us all.

Remembrances from Amanda Rodriguez, Marketing Director

In 2017, JC was one of the first people I interviewed as part of the Stories Happen in Forests documentary. I created the film to showcase the unique ways people connect with forests. My videographer and I met JC in a park in Greenville, NC to film him. He was nervous and a little camera shy, but he had a clear vision of what he wanted to share. JC spoke about growing up with polio and suffering post-polio complications in adulthood. He talked about how the forest gave him both solace and strength. He said,

“I found my reprieve by going into the forest. Everything is beautiful. Every notch, every crooked branch, everything that other folks may see as ugly or not being normal is absolutely beautiful. I’ve always wanted to feel normal, and I wanted to feel beautiful in my own way. And in the forest, my disability didn’t affect me negatively. It was part of the complexity of life.”

As we wrapped the interview, JC and I kept chatting. With the interview at a close, JC visibly relaxed and spoke more freely. We then discovered my videographer had left the camera rolling. And she captured this easeful conversation. I chose to end the final video with his message from that exchange.

People often ask me which is my favorite interview from the documentary. And while I love them all, it was always JC’s that I talk about. It holds a special place in my heart, leaving me with teary eyes upon every single viewing. His honesty, his vulnerability, his strength, and his joy move me deeply. In 2021, we reunited for a Stories Happen in Forests panel interview. JC revealed that when I released the video, he initially felt exposed and ashamed. But soon having his truth out in the world became a source of confidence for him. I’m so grateful that JC chose to share his story with me and the world. I’m so humbled that he, too, got something special and important from the experience.

With JC’s passing, a beautiful light has gone out. The impact that he left behind will continue. Through the lives he touched, the work he did, and the changes he inspired. I am so honored that I got to be one of the lives that he touched.

Remembrances from Sasha Mitchell, Operations Director

I had the pleasure of getting to know JC over the years at several of our board meetings. My impression of JC is of a gentleman and his love for forests. His willingness to hold fast to his ideals and the people and places he cared about stood out. We stayed up very late talking on several evenings after our busy days of board meetings. He shared his journey with sobriety and his love for family. He was dedicated to not letting past hurts take away from relationships he has today. His belief in second chances which is so evident in his nonprofit JAPRI. JC spoke of the pain of his childhood, and how he sought refuge in the forests, and how trees brought him comfort. He was always kind and caring, and pushed himself to do more, but always in service to others. When I learned he was ill, I started to make him a picture in photoshop so he could picture himself in the place he loved. That is how I’ll remember him.

The photoshopped image Sasha Mitchell created of JC in his favorite place: the forest

Remembrances from Kimala Luna, Outreach & Recruitment Manager

I had the privilege of interviewing JC Woodley at our 25th Anniversary event last year. I’d interacted with him for years as a board member. This time I got to talk to him about his experience being in the Stories Happen in Forests documentary. JC was so intertwined with nature that he emanated the same feelings I get when I enter a forest. Wonder, reverence, and awe. During the event he shared how as a young boy he found his power in nature. As a boy with polio he was bullied in school.  When he came home from school, his family was overprotective. The only place he could be himself was in the woods. People cautioned him to stay out of the woods, but that was where we felt most safe and happy.

He would throw his crutches down and grab onto tree limbs and roll against tree trunks to get around. He said,

“I had to understand all this beauty that I was seeing that people said would harm me, but it wasn’t harming me.”

JC at the filming of the Stories Happen in Forests documentary

He saw that animals lived intentionally for their survival. If he stayed out of their way, he never had any problems. JC said,

“My mission is to teach people not to be afraid of forests and to enjoy them and to reap those values that are there.”

JC helped so many people to not be afraid of the woods. He also showed them how to feel secure in themselves and their place in the natural world. He was a joy to be around always. He showed up authentically and bravely in all rooms I ever saw him in. I’m so grateful to have gotten to know such a magical person that I will forever admire. I aspire to be more like JC.

Remembrances from Scot Quaranda, Communications Director

JC was one of the sweetest people I had the pleasure to know. His kind heart and dedication to forests, climate, and justice were an inspiration to me. I know he was an inspiration to everyone he met. We had deep ties; he and my best friend’s sister worked together at the EPA. What a pleasure to make that connection and pass along hellos.

He cared so deeply about everyone he met. He always found beauty everywhere he went. Soft-spoken JC would defend and protect every person and every place he loved. His love for the people of the South, the swamps, wildlife, and trees touched my heart.

JC joins other community members to protest clearing NC forests for biomass wood pellets. JC is on the left in a tan blazer.

I sure will miss him and send my deepest love and sympathy and prayers to his family and friends.

Remembrances from Adam Collette, Programs Director

JC was one of the best humans that I have ever had the privilege of knowing. If you had the opportunity to sit in a meeting or attended a rally with JC, you know how inspiring, committed, and passionate he was about his work. Every time he spoke I not only learned something, I felt something.

JC and I connected through many different areas of our lives. From our collective work to protect forests and communities, to our long conversations about how men and boys need to show up in today’s world, as well as our ongoing (and often heated) debate about North Carolina vs Kentucky basketball. All these moments, I will treasure.

JC front and center at the Northampton County public hearing. JC joined others to protect the forests he grew up with and loved.

JC touched so many lives, a legacy that will not be forgotten. We are all living in a healthier, safer, happier world because of JC. I will miss him dearly and am sending all of my love and prayers to his family.

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