Leonard Johnson, a student in the Master of Public Policy Administration program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, would be a hero in anyone’s book. He’s not the running into a burning building kind of hero, but the kind kids can count on over the long haul. And for that kind of heroism, he’s been named an Allstate 2011 Give Back Day Hero, one of only four in the nation.
The awards are a tribute to the heroic public service of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the men and women who volunteer in their community to make a difference every day. This is the second year Allstate will present awards to Give Back Day Heroes in Atlanta at ceremonies on Jan. 15, King’s birthday.
Johnson, 24, grew up in East St. Louis, Ill., and works as a graduate assistant in the university’s Office of Student Life working with emerging leaders. It’s a job well-suited for him.
Johnson’s success as an undergraduate student leader at Harris-Stowe State University triggered the nomination for the Give Back Day Hero award. Student leaders at Harris-Stowe, a historically black institution and those at Saint Louis University, a private, Catholic, primarily white university, formed a partnership called Dream Keepers. Their primary task was to raise awareness of racial reconciliation in 2008, the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death. The organization strengthened the relationship between the neighboring universities and served as a model for racial reconciliation within the city of St. Louis.
Dream Keepers helped raise more than $13,000 for the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project in Washington, D.C. And it cemented a friendship for Johnson with Evan Krauss, then head of student government at SLU.
“He’s become sort of a ‘godbrother’ to me now,”Johnson said. “He nominated me for the award. He never mentioned it, he just sent it in. I was totally surprised to receive such a prestigious honor.”
His success with the Dream Keepers venture and then a sister’s untimely death triggered another opportunity for heroics on Johnson’s part.
When his sister died he volunteered to become legal guardian of his 14-year-old nephew who served as the pioneer of a new mentoring program. He is the first of 11 boys, all members of the Young Men’s Achievement Academy, a pilot program Johnson launched at the Grand Center for the Arts, a charter school in St. Louis. The program’s goal is to pair young men with mentors. One of many program activities includes college tours – a basketball game at Harris-Stowe or a night with Maya Angelou at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center at UMSL. He will kick off a full program with 25 boys next fall, 50 the next year and 100 the next.
“We’re exposing the young men to new places and experiences, and talking to them about their future,” Johnson said. “We’ve recognized a much greater need across the city, the region, the state. In reaching this generation, we hope to prepare them to be mentors of the next generation,”
Johnson’s aspirations for future generations build on those of his parents, who he credits for his commitment to his community. He was 12 years old when he first volunteered at a local food pantry.
“Many times I saw my parents take a turkey or basket of food to someone who needed it,” Johnson said. “They even took in young people to live with us. I was in the third or fourth grade, and my brother and I brought home a friend of ours who really needed some love. He came to live with us for a while and today he is doing well.”
Johnson’s career plans fold his community service into his very busy life and UMSL plays a central role.
“Everything happened in August,” Johnson explained. “My nephew moved in, I was accepted into the MPPA program, I got this job in Student Life working on leadership training. It took me until November to catch up with my new life.”
He’ll travel to Atlanta for the award ceremony and then rush back to St. Louis to participate Jan. 17 in UMSL’s MLK Day of Service – giving back, like the hero he is.