Editor’s note: This is one in a series of occasional stories about volunteers in our community.
Walk into the office at Independence Inc. while volunteer Athena Johnson is working the front desk, and the first thing you’ll notice is her enthusiastic smile and never-met-a-stranger warmth. She manages her job so seamlessly — answering phones, assisting visitors — that it might be awhile before you notice that Johnson is legally blind.
For the past 20 years, a form of macular degeneration has been slowly robbing Johnson of her eyesight. She can still perceive variations in light and can read with the aid of assistive technology, but, eventually, she will lose her vision altogether.
Even though she can no longer see her grandson’s face or watch a sunset, Johnson’s disease hasn’t stolen her infectious optimism, her deep-felt compassion for others and her business acumen, honed by years of running a family business in her hometown of Chanute.
Johnson taps into all those skills as a volunteer receptionist and board member for Independence Inc., which provides advocacy, services and education for people with disabilities. She has a soft spot for this agency because it’s here, as a newcomer to Lawrence, that she found the support she needed to prepare for the time when she will lose her eyesight entirely.
Johnson first came to Independence Inc. to access the assistive technologies that have allowed her to live independently and to continue working. One device magnifies words to a size she can still read. Another scans written words and audibly reads them back.
Once she was up to speed, Johnson was ready to get to work. But she felt so passionately about the mission of Independence Inc. that she decided to forego a
paying gig and become a volunteer receptionist for the organization so she could provide encouragement to others living with disabilities. It wasn’t long before she joined the board of directors and took on the office of secretary.
“I feel strongly about what Independence Inc. is trying to do,” Johnson said. “There are so many people out there who are unable to find resources, and there are so many resources at Independence Inc.”
The agency provides services such as transportation, training, advocacy, peer support and community education.
Johnson’s hours of dedication to the agency and her unflappable determination to help others netted her the organization’s nomination for the United Way Roger Hill Volunteer Center’s Wallace Galluzzi Outstanding Volunteer Award.
“Athena goes above and beyond the call of duty for our organization. She puts her years of business experience to good use by sharing her patience, problem-solving skills and kindness with others at Independence Inc.,” said Stacey Hunter Schwartz, executive director of Independence Inc. “She’s not just a volunteer — Athena has become a mandatory factor in our company’s daily duties. She’s a fantastic role model for the people with disabilities who come through our doors and call us.”
But it’s more than connecting people with resources that Johnson finds so gratifying about her volunteer job. It’s the chance to connect with others who are living with disabilities, to hear their stories and to offer encouragement born of personal experience that also fuels Johnson’s tank.
“It’s so gratifying,” she said.
Independence Inc. is always in need of volunteers, Schwartz said. Volunteers staff the front desk, assist with the office’s outdoor environment, teach computer courses and help the agency with marketing and fundraising events.
To find out more, contact Independence Inc. at 841-0333 or independenceinc.org.
— Micki Chestnut, associate director of the United Way Roger HIll Volunteer Center, can be reached at 865-5030.