ABOUT THE AWARDS
The Jefferson Awards that recognize volunteerism have been presented on the local and national levels since 1972. Each year a national winner is selected in four categories: elected or public officials, private citizens, people benefiting the disadvantaged and individuals 35 or younger. The final winner of Chattanooga's Jefferson Awards will attend the national awards program in Washington, D.C., this year.
When Eva Jo Johnson moved back to Chattanooga after nearly 50 years, she was prepared to make a difference.
"I came to Chattanooga ready and willing to contribute my experiences here," she said.
Since she returned to the Scenic City in 2008 to be near her mother, Johnson has added many volunteer jobs to her lengthy resume.
She works as a facilitator for the Victim Offender Reconciliation Program, which helps to prevent youth offenders from repeating crimes. She was a volunteer for EVEN ME, which goes into Chattanooga elementary schools and plans birthday parties for students. She's helped out with Riverbend, Destiny Community Theater and the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera Guild. And she's also done much, much, more.
Johnson is being recognized for her service as one of December's winners of a local Jefferson Award. She was nominated by Doris Phipps, who has done volunteer work with Johnson and knew her when they were both at Howard High School.
"She's a go-getter," Phipps said. "She's very dependable. She's trustworthy."
Johnson grew up in Chattanooga and graduated from Howard in 1959. Her parents and teachers, as well as other community members, instilled in her a commitment to service in her youth, she said. Volunteering ran in her family -- her father had leadership roles in the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
"It just seemed to be more of that ... in our day," she said.
Johnson got married right after high school and relocated with her husband to Connecticut in 1960, she said.
She became an educator and spent most of her professional career in the Hamden, Conn., school district. About two years after she started working there, she started a month of multicultural programming, she said, which became an annual event in the town and eventually led to multicultural activities throughout the year.
After retiring from her job in Connecticut, she spent five years in and out of Africa, doing mission work and living with both her grandson and her oldest daughter, Gail Spence. While she was in Ghana, a Methodist bishop asked Johnson to develop and facilitate a curriculum for a girls' high school, an experience that put her in the volunteer mode when she moved back to Chattanooga.
Johnson said she feels as if she has a spiritual obligation to give back.
"I feel that I've been blessed with a lot of experiences," she said. "I just wanted to bring it back home."
Spence is proud of her mother's accomplishments, particularly because Johnson got married young and raised Spence and her siblings largely as a single parent.
"She's the epitome of the American dream," Spence said.
Johnson said she never was in too bad a position as a single parent because she came from a good family. Raising her kids mostly on her own also helped her help people in similar situations, she said.