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Megan Johnson: Inside the mind of Federal Way's mega-volunteer | The Mirror Interview
Federal Way resident and mega-volunteer Megan Johnson was recently named the winner of the Washington State Jefferson Award.
The award is like a “Nobel Prize” for public service. Johnson will represent the state in Washington, D.C., for the national Jefferson Award in June.
Johnson is no stranger to public service, having donated thousands of dollars to charities through multiple endeavors. It all began at age 10, when she started Megan’s Mission to provide homeless people with blankets, clothing, food and more.
Johnson has also authored and illustrated three children’s books. One of those books, “Growing up Different,” has sold nearly 10,000 copies and earned Johnson a letter from first lady Michelle Obama. Furthermore, she regularly speaks to children in local elementary schools and travels the country as a spokeswoman for Shriners Hospitals for Children.
Johnson sat down with The Mirror last week to talk about her outlook on life — and what she would do with three wishes.
What drives you? What gets you to put your shoes on every morning and go do what you do?
I’ve always had compassion while helping others in need, especially the homeless because now in the economy, there are more people who end up living the street because they lost their job or something. If I see a need, it just drives me like, “oh I really need to do something.” I mean somebody’s got to do something.
Is there a particular highlight or moment for you that you’re most proud of?
One thing that keeps me going is, whenever I give out blankets or a pair of socks or just a hug, for example. Just seeing how thrilled their smiles are — how their frowns turn upside down and turn into a smile. Just seeing the outcome. The way they react too — as if you had given them a million bucks — over a pair of socks, for example. It’s just wonderful to see how really appreciative they are just to receive something. Just to let them know they’re listened to. They want to be listened to because people tend to ignore them and don’t want anything to do with them. They just love the fact that there’s somebody out there that just cares about them. That’s what keeps me going. That’s one of my highlights, just to see the outcome and reward, seeing the people’s reaction. Some will even cry. They just cry joy and even hug you and just say “thank you.”
Do you feel like the people you help are ignored?
One of the reasons they are ignored is that in society, people see the homeless as lazy, bums, drug addicts, mental illness. They just don’t want anything to do with them. They look at them as dirt, inferior. They don’t want to have any involvement with it. It’s just sad.
Who are your role models? Who do you look up to?
I have a couple. One of them is my parents of course. They brought me up with a really good family. They’ve given me confidence and courage. They show me love, especially. One of my big role models — have you ever heard of the Shriners, with the red hats? Of course, my dad’s a Shriner now. I look up to Shriners. They’re my big role models because I go to Shriners hospital, where they give medical care at no cost regardless of how you can pay. They do wonderful, great work. They help others and they do philanthropy work as well. They help those less fortunate, helping kids receive medical care at no cost to their families. I see them as just being my heroes for what they have done for me. I just had my 28th surgery, so I’m all swollen.
At Shriners, you had your 28th surgery?
Yeah, I’m almost done. I have probably one or two left. And I think my other role models are those — anybody like (Federal Way resident and FUSION founder) Peggy LaPorte, who was one of the Jefferson Award winners, or Jim Theofelis (Mockingbird Society founder). They’re also making a difference as well, helping the community and making the world a better place. Anybody that’s trying to make a difference is my role model.
If you had a magic wand that could fix one thing, what would you fix?
Well I’ve always had three wishes. Probably a big one: I wish that there’d be no such thing as homelessness. Anything I guess that could be unfortunate, like a disease, like AIDS — I’d try to find a cure for that and anything that could cause something unfortunate. I wish there was no homelessness.
Did you start to say you had three wishes?
Yes, I have three wishes! One is that there would be no such thing as homeless or world hunger or anything like that. Another wish was, I was born with — I have several medical conditions, but one is, I wish I had 20/20 vision. I have one eye that’s legally blind. I can see you, but not with details. I can’t see your eyes or pupils. I can just see your image, your jacket color ...
And my large noggin?
(laughing) No, you don’t have a large noggin! I’m hoping someday for stem-cell research that they’ll find a cure, a way — I was born with really small optic nerves, that’s the issue. I was thinking the other day, what was my third wish? I can’t think of my third wish!
Let’s think of one right now. What comes to mind?
I don’t know. I’ve always wanted to grow taller. I was always the shortest kid in class! (laughs) I really wish I was good in math. Math has always been my weakest subject.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
Well, I’m going to Highline Community College right now and hope to transfer to Wazzu (Washington State University) — yeah Cougars! I’ve always wanted to do something in the medical field, probably because of growing up in hospitals most of my life. I’ve always wanted to become a nurse. I love helping others, especially children that have disabilities or some kind of medical condition because I know what it’s like being different. Even though I am going to become a nurse, I’ll always do Megan’s Mission, no matter what. I plan on doing it for the rest of my life, as long as I can, and even pass it down to my children. I’d love to become a pediatric nurse. I’m also getting my degree in human services like social working. I also want to help those who maybe are depressed or something. I’m almost done with my nursing prerequisites. I’ll graduate with my pre-nursing next summer.
How old are you again?
I just turned 20. I’m going through a mid-life crisis here because of just the word twenty — I’m not a teen anymore. (laughs)
Aside from most people in their teenage years, it’s a challenge to get adults to do the things you’re doing.
It’s never too late to volunteer. Anybody can volunteer, even if they’re old or young or middle aged. Volunteering is a great thing to do. It gives you a rewarding and warm feeling that you accomplished something by helping someone or just making the world a better place. A lot of people have potential to volunteer. They want to volunteer, but they don’t know how to start.
What would you recommend to someone who wants to volunteer, but doesn’t know where to start?
I got to meet (former U.S. Secretary of State) Condoleeza Rice last year, and she gave a wonderful speech about volunteerism. She said a good way to start volunteering is to think of something you’re compassionate about. ... You can use your talents, something you’re compassionate about — you can use those in a way that makes the world a better place. If anybody wants to volunteer and help pass out blankets with me, they’re welcome. We do it every year around Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
Tell me about how it feels being named the state’s Jefferson Award winner.
I was completely shocked. ... It’s something I never would have expected. Even from the beginning when I started Megan’s Mission when I was 10, I never expected to get all this attention, all these awards. I never knew it would be known all over the country. It’s just something that I love doing, something I care for. I was really really surprised when I found out I get to go to nationals in D.C. It was quite a tough competition as you can see. Here I am, just a little kid here.
Does the attention bother you?
No, I like attention, but I never expected all this attention. I get to meet all kinds of people. I like people. •