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Mom goes from welfare to grad school


1:00 P.M. EST May 18, 2010

Kimberly Johnson plays with an infant during floor time in the Early Head Start Program.  A UMNS photo by Tonya Pass.
Kimberly Johnson plays with an infant during floor time in the Early Head Start Program. A UMNS photo by Tonya Pass. View in Photo Gallery

Kimberly Johnson used to spend her days watching “Ryan’s Hope” and “All My Children” in a small, cockroach-infested apartment, waiting to collect her next welfare check.

“Back in those days, I was a real humdinger,” Johnson said. “I was always looking for a fight. I had no ambition to better myself.”

In 1993, representatives from a United Methodist ministry dropped by to recruit for their child care and Head Start programs. She eagerly enrolled her four children just to get them off her hands.

But Johnson soon discovered that the leaders of the ministry — the Marcy-Newberry Association Inc. — had more expectations of her than she had ever held for herself. The association required her to volunteer to work in its early childhood education program, and Johnson made a surprising discovery: She was good at it. She loved working with youngsters.

Today, she is the ministry’s director of program operations, overseeing its work at 10 sites in Chicago.

“Without the Marcy-Newberry Association, I would be dead or in jail,” she said. “I now feel that God put me here to help a lot of other Kimberly Johnsons — parents who need intervention. I, too, had people who saw the potential in me.”

Transforming lives

The Marcy-Newberry Association Inc., supported by the Women’s Division of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, has served impoverished residents of Chicago’s West Side for more than 126 years.

In addition to its child-care programs, the ministry offers recreational activities for teens, job training for adults, transitional housing for the homeless and services for the elderly. In 2009, the ministry helped 3,500 clients.

For Johnson and others, the ministry’s main work is transforming lives. In the 17 years since she first sent her children to Marcy-Newberry, Johnson, 42, has gone from living on welfare to working on her doctorate in educational leadership.

Johnson’s turning point came one day when she squabbled with another parent at the Head Start program.

Benjamin J. Kendrick, Marcy-Newberry’s executive director, interceded.

“I don’t want to see you ever doing that again,” he told Johnson.

However, he tempered his criticism with what turned out to be valuable counsel. He told Johnson that she had a talent for teaching, and she should go back to school.

“My approach with Mrs. Johnson was no different than it has been with so many others,” he said. “I want these parents to know they can do so much more than watch TV all day. They can accept the challenge to improve themselves.”

Johnson was reluctant to take Kendrick’s advice. Nevertheless, she said, it eventually sank in.

She returned to evening school and earned her high school diploma in 1995, and then she went on to nearby Malcolm X Community College, where she became president of the academic honor society. She went on to earn her bachelor’s from Kendall College in Chicago, where she graduated with a 4.0 grade point average.

She is working on her doctorate of education through Walden University. She expects to complete her dissertation next year.

Never give up

Throughout her education, Johnson said she has had help from Marcy-Newberry staff members. They helped teach her to write a resume and prepare for a job interview. She said her experience as a volunteer also helped her become an effective communicator and a more conscientious student.

“I never thought about giving up, never,” she said. “I knew the minute that Marcy-Newberry propelled me forward I was going to go all the way.”

Johnson has left behind the sort of cramped, noisy public housing where she grew up. She now lives in a spacious house on a tree-lined, quiet street.

More than helping her, she said the ministry has imbued both her and her family with the value of education. Her son, Robert Hamilton, 23, is completing his junior year at Harold Washington College, where is majoring in accounting. Her daughter, Imani Hamilton, is graduating high school and has recently accepted admission to Clark Atlanta University.

Johnson, who has seven children, said her family studies together around the kitchen table.

“Education is the key,” Johnson said. “It truly has unlocked so many doors. It really made me a good parent and showed me the possibilities of what I could be.”

*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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