Boys & Girls Club celebrates Atlantan Gail Johnson, second mom to many kids

Credit: Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta

Credit: Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta

What does 45 years of selfless service to children look like?

For Gail Johnson, executive director of the Warren Boys & Girls Club in Atlanta’s Grant Park, it translated to hundreds of children and teens, past and present staff members, former club members and their parents surprising her last week on her 45th work anniversary with tributes, flowers and cheers loud enough to be heard a block away at Maynard Jackson High School.

David Jernigan, president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta, typically marks employee benchmarks with flowers and cupcakes, but felt Johnson’s milestone merited a more elaborate response.

“She is a leader who will do whatever it takes for her kids and her families, and she has been demonstrating that for decades,” he said. “I think many kids and families see her as kind of a second mom.”

A day after the celebration, a still-stunned Johnson laughed at the mom description, saying she now serves children of former club members so she sometimes feels more like a grandmother to the 210 children in the after-school program and the hundreds in summer camps. She has a 39-year-old daughter and three grandsons, who live in the Lawrenceville area.

Credit: Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta

Credit: Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta

Are today’s club members different than their parents?

“The kids haven’t changed, but the circumstances around them have,” said Johnson, citing the impact of social media and the increasing time parents must devote to work to pay the bills.

“Kids don’t have enough human touch on a given day. As a result, they see everything as faster and quicker, a world more in a hurry,” said Johnson, who herself attended the Decatur/DeKalb Girls Club while a student at Decatur High School. As a Spelman College student, she began working for the Girls Club in 1978, graduating in 1980 and moving to the Grant Park facility in 1991 as a program director. Johnson became executive director in 1999.

Children live with greater anxiety and fewer touchstones, she said. As the cost of living in the Grant Park area has risen, residents don’t stay in place for decades. “Kids don’t have connections to their neighbors and community,” she said.

Johnson has been a stable connection for the community.

A large apartment complex now looms over the club, replacing single-family houses and familiar faces. “I used to know Miss Ruby, Miss Matthews and Miss Donna. They are gone. I can’t know those 200-plus people in those apartments,” said Johnson.

Nehemyah Evans, 17, a senior at Maynard Jackson, said most of his lifelong friends come from the club, which he started attending at age 5. “School and classes are always changing. The club never changes.”

Another constant has been Johnson. “Ms. Gail always looks for the best in people,” said Nehemyah. “I have always enjoyed coming here. It was a great place to grow up. Now I volunteer around the club. I come to pay my debt to the club.”

Among Johnson’s well-wishers was Atlanta Councilman Jason Winston, a past volunteer coach at the Warren Boys & Girls Club. He offered up a proclamation from the city and his own personal commendation. “I have seen the difference she made not just inside this building, but in the community,” said Winston. “I saw Miss Johnson out in the community, knocking on doors, checking on kids.”

Also on hand was educator Danielle Battle, who last week became interim superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools. As principal of nearby Parkside Elementary, Battle said she developed a strong partnership with Johnson.

And personally, my stepchildren went to the Boys & Girls Club multiple summers while I was working. My granddaughter and great-nephew were there two summers ago. I knew all of them were in very capable and loving hands. We all love Ms. Gail. She is simply the best,” said Battle.

Parent Ronnetta Coker found out about Johnson’s surprise celebration on Monday. She showed up Wednesday evening bearing a bouquet of flowers and a letter of appreciation for Johnson for all the years her 17-year-old daughter Chelsea attended the club. “She really cared and you knew she cared,” said Coker.

The impetus for Coker’s note and dozens of others collected was the 267 letters that Johnson herself wrote to every child in the Warren Boys & Girls Club after COVID-19 shuttered the facility in April of 2020. Missing the children and alone in the empty club, Johnson pulled out different colored pens — matching them to each child’s personality — and wrote letters of encouragement, reminding kids of their favorite toys or counselor. Parents reported their children loved the letters; for some, it was their first piece of personalized mail.

Johnson loves the congratulatory letters she received at the celebration, too, only managing to get through four because of how much she cried. The rest of the pile, she said, is going to wait for a weekend when she can let the tears come.

Although she turned 65 a week ago, Johnson said she has no retirement plans. “My girlfriends tell me I will know when it is time; I will be riding down the street after work, know I had enough, turn back and say I am gone.”