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New Orleans native to be honored at YWCA's Women of Achievement luncheon

By Megan Workman

WANT TO GO?

Women of Achievement awards luncheon

WHEN: March 8, noon to 1:30 p.m.

WHERE: Charleston Embassy Suites

TICKETS: $75 (75 percent tax deductible)

CONTACT: YWCA, 304-340-3557 or www.ywcacharleston.org

 CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Mary Johnson sat at the YWCA Sojourner's Shelter for Homeless Women & Families' dining table daily for nine months as she and her family got back on their feet in a new city.

The New Orleans native now visits the Charleston homeless shelter to prepare southern style meals during the holidays for its residents.

Johnson -- along with six of her 10 children and husband, Ronnie -- moved out of Sojourner's after she won a college scholarship through the group's Education and Job Readiness Center. She earned her associate degree in nursing from the University of Charleston, opened her own home healthcare business and hired her peers at the homeless shelter to work at Caregiver's.

Johnson will receive the Woman of Achievement Empowerment Award from the YWCA this week, which recognizes program clients who have turned their lives around through services, training and counseling offered by the organization. Johnson is the eighth woman to accept the empowerment award since it was first presented in 2006, said Debby Weinstein, YWCA's executive director.

She is one of four women who will be honored Friday at YWCA's 17th annual Women of Achievement luncheon at Embassy Suites.

"How does it feel to be on the other side now? It feels like a big accomplishment," Johnson said last week. "I am so excited and was very surprised [to be honored]."

Weinstein said Johnson embodies what a woman of achievement is because she has "made such a success of her life."

Johnson said she has always been interested in helping others.

At just 16 years old, she started working as a nursing assistant while still in high school.

She moved on to Tulane Medical Hospital in New Orleans seven years later where she worked as a nursing assistant and fulfilled other positions for 14 years.

Johnson participated in special programs offered at the hospital that helped her become a nurse technician, which led her to work in the wound care center, Intensive Care Unit and emergency room.

"The emergency room really caught my attention and I loved it," Johnson said. "The excitement, that fast thinking on your feet ... it was quite the experience working at Tulane."

In 1995, a hospital patient had a stroke and fell on Johnson at the same time. The unfortunate incident ended her time at the hospital when she suffered a herniated disc when her back landed on the bed railing.

"During the recovery time, I had been busy all of my life and I said then that I wanted to go to school to learn how to help others and also get myself better," Johnson said. "It was better for my health to go to another level in education."

After the accident, she dedicated more time to her job and did one-on-one total care for five years for an elderly woman who had had a stroke. The woman had a tracheostomy tube and couldn't speak, Johnson said.

Working seven days on and seven days off were challenging for her family, but she liked the "family setting" of the job, which inspired her to want to open a group home for the elderly.

But Johnson didn't get the opportunity to start a business in New Orleans.

While Johnson and her family attended one of her daughter's high school graduations, their home was ransacked and robbed for the third time in five years.

"It was just too much for us so when we found out about Sojourner's and that you can actually live there without splitting up the family," Johnson said, "it was great that we got to stick together."

Weinstein said despite the family's hardships, Johnson raised "incredibly academically successful" children. Six of her children graduated from Capitol High School.

The YWCA is honoring Johnson because of the "outstanding" way she took what could have been a tragedy and turned her life around for herself and her family, Weinstein said.

"Mary and Ron were very successful in launching from desperation in New Orleans to really being clear that wherever they landed, they were going to be successful because they have the work ethic to make their lives successful," Weinstein said.

Weinstein and others, including mentor Paul Buechler, worked with Johnson to help her launch her home healthcare business. She used money from her savings instead of taking out any loans to start Caregiver's, she said.

Although Caregiver's is currently at a halt because of a low demand in clients, Weinstein said Johnson wants to revamp her business.

Johnson said she isn't giving up on her dream to open a group home and she encourages others to stick with their passions, too.

"Make sure that you love what you're doing and you're not doing it for the money," Johnson said. "You might have stalls along the way, but it will work. If you feel good about it, you can do it."

Fonda Elliot, Patricia Kusimo and Mary Stanley will also be honored Fri., March 8. For more information about the YWCA's Women of Achievement luncheon call 304-340-3557 or visit www.ywcacharleston.org.

Reach Megan Workman at megan.workman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5113.


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