By Alexe van Beuren
Sandra Johnson is a woman brimming with enthusiasm. She darts around the living room of her home, pulling out book after book that she plans to share with the children of her neighborhood. “There’s something that wants to come out of these children,” she tells me. “I’m hoping to be that outlet.”
Originally from Illinois, Johnson moved to Water Valley in 1999 to care for her grandmother, Modine Harris. When Mrs. Harris passed, Johnson stayed – and noticed a need in the community.
She began driving her green van down the surrounding streets, passing out donated books to the children who asked for them. “The children see my van and yell ‘stop!’,” Johnson reports, and then tells me about a Sunday afternoon in the Central Street park where she read to children of all “ages, races, and denominations.”
But Johnson has bigger plans than continuing her lending library. She is in the process of establishing a non-profit organization that she’s dubbed “Along the Way Ministries.”
“It’s an organization dedicated to enriching, educating, and encouraging children one street at a time,” Johnson states. Her hands move as she sketches her plans: a building, for one; “I can’t keep operating out of my home,” says Johnson, gesturing to the living room, which is stacked with books and papers.
Johnson hopes to establish Along the Way Ministries in a community center. She sees the center as a place for children to learn old-fashioned songs, play Scrabble instead of video games, and burn off energy square dancing. “I think our kids are growing up too fast,” says Johnson. “They want someone to open up and speak to them.”
When I ask about hours, Johnson says that the children’s programs would begin after school and continue until about six pm. “That’s like a daycare,” I say. She nods, then adds, “but it wouldn’t be. Parents would have to be involved.”
Johnson says that she sees a “gap that needs to be bridged” between the school system and parents. She talks about parents who are too shy or uncomfortable to interact with their children’s teachers; “I’d like to do classes for men, too,” she says. “We’ve got too many baby’s daddies instead of fathers.”
After months of working informally, Johnson is in the process of establishing Along the Way Ministries as an IRS-certified 501(c)3, a non-profit organization. Towards that end, she’s decided to hold her first fundraiser: a no-bake sale.
“I’m asking people to donate the equivalent of what they would have spent on a cake or two,” says Johnson. “If people donate above ten dollars, they’ll be entered into a drawing.” (The prize of the drawing will be up to $275 worth of cleaning by Johnson’s White Glove service.)
Her goal is $800, which is what Johnson estimates it will cost to file a 501(c)3 application that has been reviewed by a lawyer with the IRS. She plans to open an account at Mechanics’ Bank with the first fifty dollars donated (to donate, please contact Johnson at 714-1081).
Johnson says that she’s also ready for volunteers. To date, several people have expressed interest in the project; Johnson tells me that Dr. Elizabeth Coe, a retired professor from Rust College, has committed her time, while several businesses have donated materials. However, Johnson has yet to receive firm commitments from local volunteers. “Some people here have lost hope in things of this nature,” Johnson says sadly.
While Johnson continues to work on getting a degree in special education at Northwest Community College and pursues establishing Along the Way Ministries as a non-profit, she hasn’t given up on her everyday interaction with the local children.
“Four parents have agreed to let me take their children to the library,” she tells me, referring to the Saturday morning Christmas program held at Blackmur Memorial Library over the weekend. And she continues to host impromptu reading lessons in her home, as well as perhaps starting a Saturday morning breakfast club “to set the tone for the weekend.”
“You have a lot of ideas,” I say, and Johnson nods.
“But I have to give God the credit,” she says. She smiles, and darts over to pick up another children’s book.