After twenty-seven years working in the financial services sector, in 2000 Sharon Johnson was informed that her company, Mellon US Leasing Corporation, was being sold. She was asked to relocate to the East Coast, all expenses paid. She turned down the offer and took a year’s sabbatical, during which she attended the ceremonies of a family friend’s child who had passed away on Potrero Hill.
Albert Johnson, Sharon’s husband, expressed her need for a job to Edward Hatter, who at the time was the Good Faith Employment Coordinator at the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House (Nabe). Johnson soon secured a bookkeeping position at the Nabe.
Johnson grew up at 110 Dakota Street with three siblings: Ronald, Jerome, and Doloriette, also known as “LaLa.” The four were raised by a single mother, Dorothy James, who has passed away. Johnson remembered the assistance neighbors consistently provided her family. “If we didn’t have food, there were always friends to help out,” she said. “There was a community.”
A kind of mutual support system evolved. Friends helped out Johnson’s family in any way they could; providing rides to church and school and bringing food during trying times. As a child, Johnson helped her mother babysit the children of friends and family. When a local community member was offered a job, Johnson’s family would watch their children while their parents worked. Johnson soon expanded this venture for pocket change, cherishing the opportunity to spend time with youth.
After Johnson began working at the Nabe in 2001, she noticed that neighborhood kids, particularly adolescents and high schoolers, were drawn to her. They came to her in difficult situations, and invited her to local events. “I began to enjoy watching students transcend from immature child to young adults fulfilling their greatest potential,” she recalled.
In 2003, Johnson started managing the Experiment in Diversity (EID) program, a college and career preparatory initiative which serves youth ages 13 to 17 who haven’t graduated high school. She also assists with Nabe’s summer camp, Summer in the City, which provides outdoor activities for youth ages six to 13.
A unique element of the EID program is its shopping spree, which provides $200 for school supplies, uniforms and clothing before the start of a new academic year. Participants earn the spree by assisting with the Potrero Neighborhood House Food Pantry, where they distribute groceries to those less fortunate, as well as complete curricula focusing on college and career, job search skills, resume writing, life skills and social justice.
Johnson is seeking a donor for this year’s shopping spree. “It keeps them out of jail and in focus,” she said. “I believe when they look good and feel good they are better positioned to succeed.”
“Our program serves many young folks who haven’t got a clue as to what life is about,” Johnson explained. “Youth live for the moment.” She recalled that each year many EID students enter the program with bad attitudes, cussing or not getting along with their peers. “At the end of the year,” Johnson stated, “they’re like family with each other; learning teamwork, working together and beginning to understand the impact they have on society.”
Before she passed away in 2003, just before Johnson began her current work activities, the Nabe’s executive director, Enola D. Maxwell, told Johnson, “You are more than just a bookkeeper.” Today, Johnson carries on Maxwell’s legacy of spreading hope to the diverse youth of Potrero Hill.