‘It’s a life calling’
William “Mr. J” Johnson has helped to shape the lives of countless young people through his time as the teen director at the Boys and Girls Club of Sanford/Lee County, encouraging teenagers to see their potential and then helping them achieve it.
“Working with the youth, it takes a lot of dedication and commitment,” Johnson said. “It’s a life calling. It’s not something you do for a couple of days. That’s what I thought until I got intertwined.”
Curtis Lee, one of the many people Johnson has mentored, said Johnson had a profound impact on his life and others in the community.
“I’ve known Mr. J since I was 16, and he was like a father figure in a sense,” Lee said. “He was always there when you needed him. He was always pushing you to do your best. He got me to where I am today, and I really give him a lot of accolades for my current success.”
Johnson grew up in Baltimore before joining the U.S. Army, serving in Germany and during Desert Storm.
“I wanted to get the training,” he said. “And to get out of my dad’s house. I only meant to do one tour and I ended up spending a decade of my life in there.”
He was eventually stationed at Fort Bragg where he met his wife, Michelle. He intended to become a North Carolina Highway Patrol Trooper before life at the club intervened.
“They hired me in the summer of ’99,” Johnson said. “ ... I would come and work with the teens until they got a replacement, and I looked up and three years had gone by. I had come to work with the teens, just temporarily, and it’s become a life calling.”
Johnson left in 2002 to work with area group homes and at the Lee County Youth Shelter. It was when a former Boys and Girls Club member, Jackie Owens, was killed that Johnson said he knew he needed to return to the club.
“To me, it felt like almost like I had to come back,” Johnson said. “I stopped in the middle of everything and I quit.”
Daniel Owens, Jackie’s brother and former Boys and Girls Club member, said it didn’t matter what kind of home life a teenager came from. Johnson found a way to help that child succeed.
“Mr. J, he’s the type to try and get the best out of you,” Owens said. “He can see what’s in you and he wants to push it out of you.”
Johnson gives kids a way out of their bad home life and lets them know they have the potential for greatness, he said.
“It’s not just about Mr. J,” Owens said. “He’s not for his benefit. He’s all about helping others get to where they need to be. ... That’s what Black History Month is about. People who didn’t work for their own benefit but helped others proposers.”
Johnson has a unique talent, said Boys and Girls Club Chief Professional Officer Bo Hedrick, to understand each child and remarked that Johnson’s commitment is hard to come by.
“Mr. J is a big part of the reason that many of our high school kids go on to college, many of them first generation,” he said. “He pushes them everyday.”
When a child happens to fail — drop out of school, end up in jail or dies — Johnson takes it the hardest, often seeing it as a personal failure. But, he said, the success stories far outweigh the tragedies.
“They are important,” he said. “They are the future community leaders. And we have to invest in them.”