Marnita Johnson is a former homeless resident of the Homeless Prevention Center. This is a 30-bed shelter in Woodbridge, Virginia, operated by Volunteers of America Chesapeake (VOAC). In 1993, VOAC created an innovative program called AfterShare for former residents returning to the Center to volunteer. After moving out of the center in 1997, Johnson came back to volunteer. In May of 1998, she officially took over as the volunteer AfterShare Coordinator.
Johnson was eager to take AfterShare in new directions. In 1998, she began outreach to the unsheltered homeless. As part of the county’s Continuum of Care Committee, she was instrumental in the documentation of the unsheltered in two 1999 point-in-time counts of the homeless. During this process, she trained AfterShare volunteers and community members on outreach techniques and the needs and concerns of these most vulnerable of the homeless.
Although AfterShare volunteers had always handled donations of clothing, food and household items, Johnson adjusted the processing system so the donations that were not needed by the Center could be shared with members of the community, who, though they may not be homeless, were still in need. Items have been organized and distributed every Saturday and Sunday afternoon, without exception, from June of 1998 to the present. Although many AfterShare volunteers were trained to handle the distribution and documentation, Johnson was either active or available at the Center all but two days in approximately 18 months.
When a new Center was built adjacent to the old site, and the Center moved in May 1999, Johnson identified a room for a computer lab. Since early 1998, Johnson had renovated donated computers for families to use at the Center and take with them when they found a new home. The new lab gave her the room to successfully solicit the donation of brand new computers, software, and printers, creating one of the most resourceful computer labs anywhere. Former residents, who were computer lab students, come by to volunteer as well assist Johnson with teaching.
Sometimes only a few hundred dollars towards a rental deposit meant the difference between success and continued homelessness. Johnson organized AfterShare 2000 Rent Fund, which raised more than $4,500 in November and December 1999. Utilizing the VOAC AfterShare Web site, donations and profiles of families were made available publicly. One hundred percent of all donations go directly to landlords or vendors. In December 1999, the first four families were assisted into permanent housing. The AfterShare 2000 Rent Fund will continue as Ms. Johnson accepts invitations to speak to various organizations that have pledged ongoing support.
Marnita Johnson has overcome many obstacles in her life. She is a leader by her example and continues to give between 150 to 300 hours of service per month at the Homeless Prevention Center.