Alumni Spotlight

Learning to forgive

Alumna finds peace, love and a rewarding career after tragedy

Sarah (Smith) Montana (’09) and her younger brother, Jim, were best friends. Both were musical theatre majors at JMU, roommates on campus and inseparable. Jim was the Calvin to her Hobbes.

Halfway through winter break of her senior year, Montana’s brother and mother were murdered by a 17-year-old kid from their neighborhood. The murderer had a rap sheet for robbing houses and had broken into theirs looking for things to sell for some quick cash before Christmas. He didn’t expect anyone to be home.

“There is no good age at which your family is murdered. But just because something like this happens, it doesn’t mean that your life is over. There was also this beautiful, positive side I never would have expected.”
Sarah Montana (’09)

Though most 22-year-olds wouldn’t have been able to go back to school after such a tragedy, the rush of support that Montana received from the JMU community helped her through it. Nearly 2,500 people attended her brother’s funeral, where the a cappella group Exit 245, of which Jim was a member at JMU, performed an arrangement of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” one of Smith’s favorite songs.

“The world definitely wanted to turn me into a victim,” Montana said, “but JMU didn’t. They treated me like I was still Sarah Smith, and I am forever appreciative of that fact.”

Today, Montana is a screenwriter for The Hallmark Channel. After attending the Manhattan School of Music, she started working at a small media firm where she learned the ropes of the entertainment industry and wrote her first play, a memoir that details her healing and coming of age after her brother and mother were killed. Supporters of the project encouraged her to start working with Hallmark. So far, she’s completed two movie projects: Love to the Rescue and a Christmas movie, Two Turtle Doves.

Ideally, over the next 10 years Montana will publish her memoir, become a showrunner for her TV show and write more feature films. Montana says she would love to continue making art that “shows people your story isn’t over the second something terrible happens to you.”