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D.M.N. Section: Charles C.J. Johnson
November 16, 2010North Dallas High School Booster Club
The Dallas Morning News - Sunday Education Section:
North Dallas High security worker offers shelter, support for homeless students
09:36 AM CDT on Sunday, April 25, 2010
By TAWNELL D. HOBBS / The Dallas Morning News
Charles "C.J." Johnson (School Entertainment director for the 2010 Uptown Car Show) proudly displays dozens of pictures of students on a computer stand in his bedroom. All homeless at one time, they include a boy who once slept in the bushes outside a school.
For 15 years, the North Dallas High School security worker has taken them into his southeast Oak Cliff home - 38 teenagers who had nowhere to go.
He says his connection to North Dallas High School, his alma mater, drives him to help the students.
"I don't let no Bulldog suffer," the 40-year-old said, referring to the school's mascot. "Sometimes the moms and dads scatter. I end up taking the kids in."
Johnson has no biological children and proudly refers to students he takes in as "my kids." Through the years, the students, mostly from North Dallas High, have come to him through various predicaments - from living in poverty with their families to being kicked out for bad behavior. In several cases, the kids were left alone after family members were deported.
"He's an amazing guy to dedicate himself to doing that," said Anthony Levatino, volunteer manager of Holy Trinity Center, a community outreach of Holy Trinity Catholic Church. The church has has helped Johnson provide for the teens.
A self-described "high-profile mentor," Johnson doesn't brag much about himself and diverts attention when others do.
But he boasts about the accomplishments of the kids, many of whom have moved on to successful adult lives. Those who graduate from high school get their pictures displayed on his computer stand. If they graduate, the teenagers have been successful - and so has he, Johnson said. Thus far, he said: "Out of all 38, I've only had one go to jail."
Some students have suffered emotional problems. Once he walked in on a student after the teen had just sliced his wrists.
Johnson stays in the touch with the students long after they've left his home.
Most have gone to college, he said proudly. They work in various fields, including the Navy, restaurants and store management. He cringes when mentioning one former student's occupation: cage fighting.
Ralston Stoker, a junior at Oklahoma State, said if Johnson had not come into his life, he's certain he'd have a criminal record and would not be in college. He said his mom kicked him out of the house for not following her rules during his senior year at North Dallas High School in 2006.
"I was just doing stupid stuff, a troublemaker," said Stoker, 21, adding that Johnson helped him land college scholarships and became his mentor.
He said Johnson had his own house rules, including doing chores - feeding the dogs, mowing the yard and cleaning the fish tank.
Students who live with Johnson also must perform community service.
"That's so important to me because people help us," Johnson said.
Christy Herrscher, a mission project manager at Church of the Incarnation in Dallas, said Johnson has received help for the students for certain necessities, such as clothing and coats.
"I think he's doing great things," she said.
Johnson's mother, an adult day care worker who lives with him, said she didn't know what to think when her son brought home the first student.
"I said, 'What are you doing? Where are his parents?' " Joyce Dodd recalled.
Dodd is now used to students moving in - and said she's supportive. She said the kids sometimes call her "mom" or "Aunt Joyce."
Not much space goes unused in the family's small, four-bedroom, one-bath home. A couch in the living room that converts into a bed has been handy, Dodd and Johnson said.
He'd even give up his own bed "before I let them sleep on the floor," Johnson said of the students.
He said the most he's taken in at one time is four, which meant setting bathroom time limits during the morning rush to school and work. Most have been 16 or older when they moved in.
Johnson and his mother cover expenses with their salaries, help from family members and a couple of churches. He served as a licensed foster parent for one student and received some reimbursement, but he hasn't received money to care for the others. Some students have received health benefits through state social service programs, and he takes others to a low-cost health clinic.
Johnson said some parents give permission for their kids to live with him. He said students who are in danger or abandoned have to be reported to Child Protective Services, and the living arrangements are worked out through the agency.
Marissa Gonzales, a Child Protective Services spokeswoman, said every case is different, but the agency will first try to find relatives who can take care of the child before making placement in a foster home. She added that some families can make their own arrangements without involving the agency.
The students who have lived with Johnson are part of a rising number of homeless students, whose numbers have grown with the economic crisis. The federal government considers homelessness to be a lack of permanent housing because of extreme poverty or not having a safe and stable living arrangement.
In Texas, preliminary numbers show that 78,922 students were reported homeless in 2008-09 - up from 53,242 in 2007-08, according to the Texas Education Agency. Statewide data from previous years was not available.
Right now, a student from Honduras is living at Johnson's house.
The 18-year-old became homeless after his sister was deported for stealing food to feed him and her 2-year-old daughter.
The student, a freshman at North Dallas High, found himself alone with the child, who now stays with a family friend. He's been with Johnson since September.
"He didn't know where his sister was," Johnson said.
He speaks little English, so he and Johnson often communicate in writing.
Rafael Rodriguez, a North Dallas High School community liaison, said no matter the situation, Johnson has always been there for students.
"He goes above and beyond what the job calls for," he said. "This man has got a big love for the kids."