The Johnson family from left: Dad Jack, John, 11, Zachary, 9, Wrennie, 16, Jesse, 6, Ashley, 13, Rosey, 5 months, and mom Dew, in front of their Christmas presents and tree in their Locust St. home in Toledo.
Toledo was the one place Jack Johnson thought he could find work.
Yet steady jobs continued to elude the 43-year-old handyman, whose wife delivered their sixth child this summer after the Johnsons moved from Michigan to East Toledo several months ago.
Without enough money for rent, the Johnsons were evicted in late August, and their 17-year-old minivan became their home for weeks.
Pitching a tent would have been too cold for newborn Rosey, so the family parked at truck stops, using the restrooms with showers inside. The two elementary-age Johnson children attended school during the day, but their three teen siblings temporarily delayed classes.
“It was rough because we were cooped up in this one little area,” recalled their mother, Dew Johnson, 33. “It was rough, but we were all together.”
Setbacks, including the already ailing Mr. Johnson having a stroke and being hospitalized for a week, continued even after the family found temporary shelter.
This Christmas, however, the Johnsons will celebrate in their seven-bedroom North Toledo house provided by Catholic Charities and largely furnished by donors.
Heritage House Furniture, for example, gave the Johnsons six mattress-and-box-spring sets through Catholic Charities. A Regina Coeli Church program adopted the family for Christmas, delivering food and gifts. And a donor who wants to remain anonymous paid for a Christmas tree and decorations.
Santa stopped by with people from Regina Coeli on Dec. 18, and each Johnson child was allowed to open one gift. Days later, 9-year-old Zachary demonstrated how the toy he got from Santa worked and bragged about how well his younger brother, Jesse, 7, was doing with the Cars video game he received.
The rest of the colorfully wrapped presents were heaped under the decorated tree in a bay window, waiting for Christmas morning.
“They did everything above and beyond,” Mr. Johnson said of Catholic Charities and its partners. “I guess what happened to us happened at the right time.”
The Johnsons from left: Zachary, 9, dad Jack, Wrennie, 16, Jamyia Brand, 9, John, 11, Jesse, 6, and James Brand, 9, eat dinner in their new Locust St. home in Toledo, Ohio. The Brand family met the Johnsons in the shelter and have remained friends.
The Johnsons are eight of roughly 31,000 people helped by the Toledo Diocese’s Catholic Charities this year. The nonprofit organization assists people in 19 northwest Ohio counties with shelter, food, clothing, and other needs regardless of their religious beliefs, said Rodney Schuster, executive director of Catholic Charities.
Credit goes to Mr. and Mrs. Johnson for keeping their family together while facing challenges, Mr. Schuster said. The Johnsons’ first encounter with Catholic Charities was staying at its La Posada Family Emergency Shelter, and they also received clothing from the diocese’s Helping Hands of St. Louis.
“When they came, we just said we want to help — anything to do to help — and they’ve done the rest,” Mr. Schuster said.
He added: “We want to help people help themselves. So many of them just need that opportunity.”
While homeless, the Johnsons first received assistance from Cherry Street Mission Ministries, staying for a time in a shelter typically reserved for women and then a night in a motel. There were no relatives to whom the Johnsons could turn for help either because they would not be welcome or it was too much to ask for help with six children, the oldest of whom, Wrennie, is 16.
They were referred by Cherry Street to La Posada, but at first, the Johnsons had friction with other tenants. They left for a couple of days before staff persuaded the family to return.
Being unable to provide for his family was hard for Mr. Johnson, who said he had continued working no matter his medical woes over the years: epileptic seizures, broken knee, heart problems, and more.
The family’s finances were shaky even before they moved back to Toledo, and he has not had steady work since February because of a combination of his poor health and the struggling economy, Mr. Johnson said.
Since having a stroke in October, he continues to be weak and uses a walker to get around.
“Just being grounded, not being able to do anything, it’s frustrating,” said the Alabama native, whose wife is from northeast Ohio.
Jesse Johnson, 6, gets homework help from his mom Dew Johnson at their new Locust St. home in Toledo, Ohio.
Mr. Johnson’s physical disability, however, is what helped the family get out of the homeless shelter and into a house of their own.
Catholic Charities has about $270,000 a year for a housing program to help homeless families with at least one adult who has a physical or mental disability.
Most of that money comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Johnsons and 15 other households currently are being helped, said Michelle Poole, Catholic Charities’ housing program coordinator.
After the Johnsons returned to La Posada, a meeting was held to help heal relations with other tenants. And Mr. Johnson worked with Catholic Charities to end the family’s homelessness.
Mr. Johnson’s two prior attempts to get government disability benefits failed, including after being diagnosed with epilepsy, but a La Posada case worker spent eight hours with him to reapply. He is awaiting approval from the Social Security Administration.
“I got tired of being turned down, so I quit filing,” Mr. Johnson said of previous attempts.
The Johnson baby, Rosey, has sleep apnea and gastroesophageal reflux, so she is monitored, especially while sleeping, in case she stops breathing. Her siblings helped out around La Posada, and the second oldest, 15-year-old John, is considered his father’s right-hand man.
Chris Brenot, a Regina Coeli parishioner involved with the program for adults converting to Catholicism that adopted the Johnsons, visited the family a week ago to help give them household goods, apparel, baby items, backpacks, other gifts, and several hundred dollars’ worth of groceries.
The program always requests a large family to help, and the hope is that the children will learn about giving and help out others someday if they can, she said.
The Johnson children, including 13-year-old Ashley, have different personalities yet look out for each other, Ms. Brenot said.
Ms. Brenot was heartened to learn that their parents are teaching them self-sufficiency by having them take turns planning family meals, she said.
“We try to create a little gift-giving magic,” Ms. Brenot said. “I found them to be a very loving family, and I wish them the very best.”
After 62 days in La Posada, the Johnsons moved into their house this month with the help of a crew that included four Cardinal Stritch High School seniors. The Catholic Club helped store donated items and also delivered a load of items.
“We were just happy to be one little part in the whole process,” said Paul Szymanski, executive director of Catholic Club.
The Johnsons had stashed some of their belongings in a storage facility after they were evicted. Shea’s Furniture gave Catholic Charities a deep discount on furniture, as it has for years, to help the charity, and the family-owned business also donated bed frames to the Johnsons after hearing of their plight, said Nick Shea, one of the owners.
“It was just a big family, and they needed a lot,” Mr. Shea said. “It sounded like they could use some help.”
One evening last week, the Johnsons ate dinner with friends they made at La Posada. Tara English and her three children, who lived at the shelter for 3½ months before getting help with an apartment, may also spend Christmas with the Johnson family.
Such friendships are another positive result of staying at La Posada, the Johnsons said.
Although Mr. Johnson is unable to work, almost everything else fell into place for the Johnsons in Toledo after all.
“It doesn’t really matter where you’re at, where you live, as long as can call it home,” Mr. Johnson said.
Contact Julie M. McKinnon at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6087.
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