Gillian Johns-Young, of Erda, has lived her life moving from place to place.
She is a nomad, multilingual and an activist. Now she adds a few more words to her description: Tooele Bit and Spur Grand Marshal.
She was born in Redruth, Cornwall County, England. At 6 months old, she moved with her parents to Chile’s Atacama Desert, where her father worked for Anaconda Company as a copper miner, after previously mining tin.
Her family spent the next 16 years in Chile and Spanish became her first language. At age 13, however, she returned to England where she attended boarding school.
Chile fell under dictator Salvador Allende Gossens, who confiscated the country’s mines. As a result, the family fled. Their next home was in British Columbia, Canada.
After Canada, they transferred to Iran. The Shah of Iran had commissioned Anaconda to build the biggest open-pit mine in the world called Sarcheshmeh. Johns-Young’s father, Bertram Young, played a part in building it.
In 1979, when dictator Ayatollah Khomeini returned to power in Iran, the Shah went into exile and again the family fled.
“In both [Chile and Iran] we lived under gunfire,” Johns-Young said, referring to Iran’s Khomeini and Chile’s Allende.
Her parents then moved with Anaconda to the Tooele Valley. By this time, Johns-Young had graduated from London University and was working in retail in England’s capital. But, she was ripe for change.
Her father asked her, “Do you want to come and see if this is the place to start in America?’
“And so I immigrated to America,” she said.
A year later, in March 1981, she made the move. Soon after, her parents’ neighbor set her up on a date with a co-worker, Vietnam Vet and cowboy, George Young.
Young had been through one divorce and, he said, he had no intention of marrying anytime soon. In fact, he didn’t even want to go on the date.
“It was a Sunday brunch and a little bit of gambling … [in Wendover, Nevada],” he said. About eight months later, on October 10, 1981, they were married.
When they were first wed, the couple began chariot racing in the winter and flat track horse racing in the summers. In 1985, with the birth of their first daughter, Riki, they quit these two activities.
The children grew, and the Youngs became 4-H, Future Farmers of America, and Junior Bit and Spur leaders.
In 1998, Johns-Young was serving as Bit and Spur president. On Dec. 28, just two days before Riki’s birthday, she suffered a stroke. Doctors said she had contracted Rheumatic Fever as a child from an untreated strep infection. The fever damaged her heart valves.
“The mitral valve quit working properly and a clot broke off,” Johns-Young said. She underwent two heart surgeries to replace both the mitral and tricuspid valves.
Johns-Young was “paralyzed completely on the left side and had no verbal communication,” George Young said. At first, “she only spoke in Spanish.”
Johns-Young fought back from the stroke and began to walk in just a week. However, she said it took around five months before she could carry on a normal conversation. By then, she had lost much of her British accent (a detail she attributes to her American speech therapist).
“My daughter was told by our doctor, ‘get all of your little kids’ books and make Mom read,’” she said. Johns-Young started to read, but stringing words together into sentences was more of a struggle.
As the speech and mobility returned, Johns-Young knew she wasn’t up to the task of organizing a rodeo.
She asked Gordon Bailey and Dean Rogers to co-chair the event and she hired Ben German, owner of Broken Heart Rodeo Company, to bring in the livestock, clowns and riders. The three men were a winning team that has since continued as the heart of the Bit and Spur Rodeo, she said.
Johns-Young said serving as the grand marshal makes her uncomfortable. She and her husband like being behind the scenes — but change is in the air.
“I have requested of George to not open up the bulls’ gates because I thought that he was getting too old,” Johns-Young said.
Family and rodeo continue to be part of the couple’s life. Added to these is Johns-Young’s newest passion: her job as an employment counselor for the Salt Lake City Department of Workforce Services. There she routinely works with foreign refugees from places like Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Congo and Sudan.
“These refugees. they’re put on a plane. They come … not knowing anything about Utah,” she said. “They come with a plastic bag with all their documents and whatever they can carry on the plane.”
She said the day after the refugees arrive, they come to her office to begin their job search. It is then, she said, that they finally let down their guard.
“They get here, in a safe surrounding … and they finally get out of their ‘fight or flight mode,’” she said.
As a former nomad herself, Johns-Young knows what it is like to be a stranger in a foreign land.
“They’re people that I love,” she said. “When we leave, we hug. It’s not a short-term project.” Many of them will work with her for up to three years as they search for employment.
“When we have a refugee family, we don’t just deal with the mum or the dad for employment, we also help the their children [to] succeed,” she said.
The Youngs plan to move soon to a home they will build in Red Rock, Montana. They will spend winters in another home in Tucson, Arizona. In both communities she plans to serve — in Montana she will volunteer in any way possible, but in Arizona she has different plans.
“There aren’t a lot of refugees in Montana,” she said with a twinkle in her eye and a smile, “but there are a lot of migrants in Tucson.”