Meet Sarah Johnson, our Executive Director
I come from a long line of compassionate community helpers. My mother is a retired nurse, as were both my grandmothers and my mother-in-law. Three of my grandparents served in the military. My grandfather's story of serving in the Navy during World War II has always inspired me to do more for those in need. He was stationed on the USS Wilks-Barre in the South Pacific and was deeply impacted by the poverty and homelessness he witnessed while their cruiser was docked at various islands throughout his tour. When he returned home at the age of 20, he and his parents started something like a small soup kitchen, but better, out of their Salem home. Anytime my grandpa crossed paths with someone in need, he would invite them home for a hot meal and family fellowship. Eventually the locals knew if they needed a meal or a friend, the Brown family always had an extra plate set for them.
The idea of being a helper has always been a part of my life, but until recently it was not my focus. I am a huge science nerd. I do, in fact, own my own high-power microscope. After our children were old enough to start preschool, I returned to college to pursue a bachelor's degree in laboratory science and eventually a master's degree in immunology or epidemiology. The summer before my laboratory science internship was to begin, my husband was offered the position of Executive Chef at Pacific University in Forest Grove. It was an incredibly tough decision. We had roots in Eastern Idaho, and I was so close to completing my bachelor's degree, but our family is concentrated in Washington and Oregon, and we had been a thousand miles away missing birthdays and holidays for five years. We decided to move home to the Pacific Northwest and landed in McMinnville, coincidently where my dad and his family grew up.
I decided to take some time off school to help our family settle. I applied with the McMinnville School District for what I thought was a classroom assistant position at Newby Elementary where our children attended but ended up being a position with Patton Middle School in a pilot program called Why Try for at-risk students. At the interview I felt an immediate connection with administration and staff, however I was extremely nervous to be working with middle schoolers- kids right in the middle of the hardest, most awkward stage of childhood. The Why Try program was intense; it required identifying obstacles in life, labels you have attached to yourself or had attached by others, acknowledging poverty, and it taught communication skills to improve relationships at home and at school. I know adults who would be uncomfortable with the level of sharing and soul searching. Despite the level of vulnerability required, the kids committed to self-improvement. They inspired me every day.
One Friday afternoon at the end of the school day one of my students shared with me that there was drug use happening in their home and they felt unsafe. I did not push for information, but we talked about a plan if things got out of hand- where to go, what to do, etc. With a plan in hand and the knowledge that this was not a situation they should feel guilty about or try and change on their own, the student left for the weekend. Once alone, I cried for a few minutes, then pulled a blank report form out of my file cabinet. This was to be my first of over a dozen child welfare reports during my time with the district.
Through this experience, I was moved to do more to help vulnerable children and youth. I returned to college, starting over on a new degree track, at Oregon State University with the goal of a bachelor's in Human Development and Family Science, with an emphasis on family violence and trauma with a minor in public health. It added time to my education but the drive I felt made it worth every minute.
I believe in the power of community, of helping each other achieve great things through mutual respect and support. I believe in keeping families together whenever possible while also ensuring the most vulnerable members of the family, the children, have the ability to feel safe, loved, and to thrive.
The CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) Program is one of the most powerful platforms for children’s voices to be heard in the court system and I am so proud to have the opportunity to serve our volunteers and community.