“Prayer is the key of the morning and the bolt of the evening.” – Mahatma Gandhi
The holidays seem to spark something in all of us. Some volunteer, some donate. Whatever the deed may be, ‘tis the season – and the reason for the season is giving. For Dr. Joan Jackson Johnson, that season is 24/7, 365 days a year.
Johnson is a clinical psychologist, principal owner of the East Lansing Center for Family and serves as director for the city of Lansing’s Human Relations and Community Services Department (HRCS). Johnson is known as a “voice for the voiceless” and is proud to be dedicated to the struggles of the less fortunate and vulnerable.
“There are so many people that are afraid to or that don’t know how to speak up for themselves, and they are taken advantage of,” Johnson explained. “The empowerment of educating people is important.”
Johnson has spent the past 12 years working to uphold the principles of equal opportunity, promote community connections, facilitate local human services, and implement federal mandates that confront homelessness and other community social challenges. She’s allowed the hardships and disadvantages of her childhood help shape who she is today. Growing up in inner-city Jacksonville, Florida, Johnson experienced the roadblocks of disadvantages and discrimination. Those experiences fuel her personal passion for advocating, empowering and educating poor children and families about homelessness and food deprivation.
Johnson’s initiatives through HRCS are geared toward individuals most in need within the city of Lansing. Those initiatives include programs such as the Mobile Food Pantry, the School Break Feeding Program, Connect4Kids, Lansing Community Connect, One Church One Family, Feed the Babies and the Spartans Giving Back Program.
“Anything we identify in the community that would help level the playing field and resolve some of the challenges,” Johnson said. “That’s what our department does and that goes from health to mental health to housing issues to other nonprofits that provide specific services. Education is a part of it.”
Johnson has spent a lifetime serving others in the best way she knows how. She serves as a board member for Connect4Kids, the Community Coalition for Youth, Capital Area Health Alliance, Ingham County Change Imitative, One Church One Family and many more. She leaves her door open to those who need her help and advocates for those who are too scared or proud to ask for it. Johnson works endlessly for the causes she feels passionate about. For her, there is no clocking out and worrying about the problem tomorrow because she knows the importance of human beings having basic necessities.
If not in her office fighting for the greater good, Johnson can likely be found at one of the area’s local homeless shelters supplying mothers in need with diapers; filling food boxes for the mobile pantry; helping a needy father clothe his baby; helping a homeless family get a house; supplying children with shoes and clothing for school; helping senior citizens; or even helping those in need of haircuts, eye care and mental health issues. Her enthusiasm for helping and educating is contagious. On the weekends she can be found serving up meals at local shelters like Advent House Ministries, where she has volunteered since the doors opened over 31 years ago. She spends at least three days a month volunteering at Advent House and one day a month at Loaves and Fishes Ministries.
“People walk across town for the best breakfast in town, but it’s also the only free breakfast in town. Other churches that come in hate when I’m there because people are really full. Brunch means anything I can find on sale. We may have four or five different meats to give people choices because during the week we choose what we want to eat, but most of our homeless brothers and sisters eat what they’re given,” Johnson explained. “My husband is called the ‘Grit Man.’ He can make 15 pounds of grits without one lump in them because I taught him how to put margarine in them.”
In a single day, breakfast might call for 5,000 eggs, 150 pounds of bacon and don’t forget the Grit Man’s grits. Johnson loves recruiting others to help those in need. She often recruits her husband, children, two grandchildren, colleagues, local businesses and total strangers to accompany her in her efforts.
In honor of her work, Johnson has been inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame and has received many accolades, including the Advent House Volunteer of the Year and The ATHENA Award, to commemorate all that she has done in the Greater Lansing area.
“Lansing is a good, caring community,” Johnson explained. “I think people are willing to help when they can identify the need.”
Johnson has lived in the Lansing area since moving here in 1969 to attend graduate school at Michigan State University, where she obtained her doctorate and master’s degrees. Before attending MSU, Johnson received her bachelor’s degree from a private college in Jacksonville, Florida, Edward Waters College.
Since moving to the city of Lansing, Johnson has married and raised five children, two biological and three adopted. Although two of those children grew in her belly, the other three grew in her heart.