When Jeffrey Johnson was a child in Arkansas with a quick temper and an even quicker tongue, his mother told him, “Boy, your mouth is gonna get you killed.”
He took that to heart, but it did not mean Johnson, now 33 and the newest resident commissioner for the Columbia Housing Authority, gave up his fast-talking ways. He has simply redirected his ability to help him succeed in his dream of helping others.
Everyone who passes his duplex at 307 Trinity Place seems to know Johnson. They wave and smile to Johnson and his wife, Toinette, and four children. Johnson responds to his neighbors with the sound of animated interest in his voice while his hands move almost as fast as his mouth. To him, everyone has an idea.
“If you bring it to the table, I’ll listen.”
At his first commissioners meeting in June, Johnson sat quietly with ankles-crossed attentiveness while surrounded by a few of Columbia’s influential leaders. He didn’t say much, but he was there to listen, as he said he plans to do to help his neighbors.
“He is more or less the expert advising us on policies we deal with,” said commission chairman Marvin Kinney, who served as resident commissioner in the 1970s. “He’s got a very important role to play on the board. The first year, the person has to be a good listener. He has to figure out the workings of the board.”
Kinney is confident Johnson will be a great asset to the board.
“I find if and when I decide no longer to stay on the board, he’d be an absolute great replacement of me,” he said.
Johnson’s mission is to help people help themselves.
“We have a lot of problems down here in public housing,” he said. “We need to stop this ourselves.”
He understands the challenges he faces in his new roles as commissioner and tenants association president for downtown-area public housing.
“If I give up on them, I’m giving up on the community,” he said. “I’m not a quitter.”
One of the biggest housing problems he has seen in recent years is younger residents, some under the legal age of 18, living in public housing units by themselves because parents sign the lease and leave the children alone. He said these types of residents are often the most apathetic about community building.
“They want something for nothing,” Johnson said. “If they don’t like it, they’re going to have to go.”
Visitors who outstay their welcome in the community also pose a problem. During his one year on the housing authority residents advisory board, which makes recommendations to the housing authority commission, he helped create a stipulation in the lease that visitors can only stay seven days.
Long-term “visitors” are still a problem, but Johnson said he will suggest better enforcement of stickers identifying residents’ cars and cards on visitors’ cars indicating how long the guest plans to stay.
“That’s what I’m talkin’ about, baby!” Johnson yells as a picture-perfect throw gets the runner out at first.
He is in the game and ready to play with his bright white and screaming red-striped socks pulled neatly to his knees — and this is just practice.
Today Johnson is helping Special Olympics athletes practice softball. He started participating with the organization more than 20 years ago when he was in special education classes in grade school.
Johnson has been a fierce athlete in basketball and track adult competitions, where he’s never placed lower than second.
“Whatever he’s doing, he’s 100 percent into it — total concentration,” said Dave Hood, Johnson’s coach of almost eight years.
Despite his aggressiveness, Johnson stops and helps his teammates learn the sport.
“Sometimes he tends to try to take my job,” Hood said with a chuckle.
Shirlene Treadwell, who like Johnson is a former Special Olympics athlete with coaching credentials, rode the same bus to competitions with Johnson 20 years ago. She thought he was a quiet boy then, but now she considers him not so quiet and a caring friend.
“If anybody doesn’t know him, they need to get to know him,” she said.
Johnson was not always at the top of his game. Shortly after moving to Columbia in 1992, his yet-to-be-diagnosed bipolar disorder really started disrupting his life. He drifted in and out of mostly janitorial work, and the hospital.
His fourth and last time at the hospital was the longest stay — three months.
He received help with counseling and medication, and he was not about to let his bipolar disorder drown his dreams.
“When I got out, I started thinking what I want to do with my life is help others with disorders and give back what was given to me,” Johnson said.
So far, Johnson feels he has been true to his words.
Johnson’s life now revolves around helping people. He visits the children and volunteers at the J.W. “Blind” Boone Center almost every day after coming home from the new job he loves with Missouri Community Advocacy Network, in which he gives presentations to Missourians with disabilities.
If you teach a man to fish …
Some residents don’t like what he’s doing so far as a leader and ignore him because they don’t care to be involved in the community, Johnson said.
So far, Johnson is the only member of the tenants association, and no one else showed up at the last meeting. He plans to keep sending letters, talking to people about the meeting and moving the meetings to more accessible locations.
He continues to work with people who want help finding out the process to solve their problems, whether they’re with the housing authority or the police.
Johnson realizes the problems do not have easy solutions, but a community that helps itself is a community where residents have the power to decide and to pursue what’s best for them. Not everyone will listen in the beginning, but he hopes to help build the foundation for a stronger community.
“They have somebody who’s there and willing to help them,” Johnson said.