Archive for Monday, August 13, 2012

Volunteer guides others in quest for independence

Athena Johnson volunteers at Independence Inc. at the reception desk, three afternoons a week. She herself took advantage of the resources offered by Independence Inc.

Athena Johnson volunteers at Independence Inc. at the reception desk, three afternoons a week. She herself took advantage of the resources offered by Independence Inc.

August 13, 2012


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

— Micki Chestnut, associate director of the United Way Roger HIll Volunteer Center, can be reached at 865-5030.


goodcountrypeople 5 years, 10 months ago

Kudos to Athena Johnson for making the most of her abilities! It's important to remember that impairments involve actual physical limitations. Disabilities in contrast are built by other people. They form the barriers that society creates to hold people back from pursuing their passions and dreams on the basis of perceived differences. Personally, I worked hard to learn to successfully navigate the world and feel comfortable in public, but all my hard work came crashing down when I had to deal with the cultural norms of KS. People here seem to raise their children to disrespect boundaries by aggressively approaching strangers on the basis of perceived physical limitations. It's terrorizing to be grabbed or to have your belongings grabbed. The twisted things people will do to convince themselves they are helping! Nothing could be further from the truth. Everyone deserves to feel safe in the world, and presumptuously aggressing on strangers for discriminatory reasons robs people of this fundamental right. When you are talking about something as a minor as a bad knee, I'd say people are over-reacting to treat you like you are as fragile as Steven Hawking. It's rude and intrusive. Boo Lawrence-- zero respect for equal rights here.

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