“When I was 19, I worked in a mill,” said Johnny Wilson, Executive Director of Fayetteville Urban Ministry. “I was a fixer. I worked third shift, and all night it was my job to make these machines go. One night, I arrived at work and they were all down. I laughed and looked up and said, ‘Lord, I can’t do this until I’m 65.’”
Even though Johnny left the mill behind, he continues to be a “fixer.” In his 17 years at Fayetteville Urban Ministry (FUM), Johnny has worked nearly every job in the building. From their well-known Find-A-Friend Program to their Nehemiah Project, he has witnessed the changing needs of Fayetteville and celebrated the accomplishments of numerous youth. When he conveys their success stories, he does so with the fervor and pride of a parent, but no story of triumph is more impressive than his very own.
Johnny was born in Washington, D.C. and describes his background as “challenged.” It was his grandmother who moved his family to rural Landrum, South Carolina.
“For a large part of my life, we lived on a farm with no indoor plumbing,” he said. But for the shortcomings he had, he also felt very blessed.
“I was a very good athlete,” he said. “I was one of the first African Americans to play quarterback at our school.”
Johnny was also the first person in his family to graduate from high school.
At junior college, with a plan to join the basketball team, Johnny was disappointed to learn the coach’s roster was already set. When he was 19, for one single day, Johnny dipped his toes into drug trade.
“It was the longest day of my life,” he recounted. After getting caught, he spent a few days in jail, which was long enough for him to devise a better plan for his life.
That’s when Johnny went to work at the mill, but every day he was haunted by the impending consequences with the law. He was 21 years old. He was married. He had a son. When his court date arrived, Johnny's high school coach, high school principal and pastor vouched for his good character and strong work ethic.
“I got probation and a fine and avoided prison,” Johnny said. “Finally, that cloud lifted.”
To earn a sufficient living in the mill, Johnny worked long hours, but he still made time to volunteer with his high school basketball team. In the evening, he scrimmaged with the players. “I was about 23 and my high school coach kept saying, ‘I realize you’re married and have a son, but you need to use your talents. Basketball is the key.’”
As fate would have it, a tryout was being held the following week in Spartanburg, South Carolina. His former coach paid for him to attend, and Johnny was able to showcase his talents. Methodist College showed interest.
“I came to Fayetteville for a visit and said, ‘This is where I’m supposed to be.’”
He and his wife saw the diversity and opportunity in Fayetteville and decided to make it their home.
Not long after Johnny came to Methodist, he and his wife separated.
“I had a tough time. I wondered if I should quit basketball altogether, but there were so many people in my path that wouldn’t allow me to quit.”
While playing basketball, he struggled to pay child support and spend quality time with his son. He balanced his studies and worked as a full-time bartender at Ruby Tuesday.
“I had low moments, but my advisors and professors expected the best. Coach McEvoy depended on me to be the leader of the team.”
Johnny laughed as he recounted his leadership role on the Methodist team. “It took me about a year to realize I wasn’t going pro. All of my teammates called me ‘grandpa’ because I was 23.”
Knowing he wasn’t going to go pro, Johnny wanted to spend his life positively affecting youth. He earned his degree in Criminal Justice.
“I knew I wanted to work with kids, but I didn’t want to lock them up,” he said.
When he graduated from college at age 26, he wanted to make a local impact and discovered FUM. After working with FUM for a year, his grandmother passed away.
“When I was a kid, my nightly prayers were traditional. At the end, I would always add, ‘Lord, please watch over my grandmother. If something happens to her, I don’t know what will happen to me.’ As an adult in college, I prayed for the same thing, ‘Lord, please watch over my grandmother until I can get out of school.’”
She had been in declining health and was still caring for Johnny’s younger sisters who were 9 and 5-years old, one of whom has epilepsy and required care at Duke. Johnny assumed guardianship.
The leadership at FUM amended Johnny’s schedule so he could care for his sisters. Among the obvious challenges of raising three small children as a single man, he recounted fondly, “I had to learn to do their hair.”
Today, his sisters are 24 and 20, a traveling nurse and a student at Bennett College, respectively.
Johnny’s own son, a graduate of Terry Sanford High School and St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, recently returned to the United States from playing professional basketball in Germany. Of their bond, Johnny said proudly, “He is the best man I know. We have a great relationship. Even when he was in Philly or Germany, we would call and talk. We’ve never been texters. I love that rascal.”
“I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” he said, of those years. “It was hard, but I adapted. Many people helped.”
With his son and sisters grown and successful, Johnny focused his time on the community of people served by FUM. He sees himself in those he helps to serve.
“My grandmother probably had a third grade reading level. We would have qualified for all of the services of Urban Ministry. I would have been in Find-A-Friend,” he said.
Johnny has never met his own father. “I have no idea if I’m shaking hands with him in the food pantry or if he’s a donor, but I have had a collage of mentors,” he said.
A well-known and well-spoken leader, Johnny promotes FUM’s mission at every opportunity. FUM has such strong name recognition that it can translate incorrectly into the notion that FUM does not struggle for funding.
“People think we’re rolling in the dough over here, but that’s not the case,” he said.
July, August and September are the most fiscally lean months for the organization as families travel for the summer since the kids are out of school. At the federal and state level, grant funding can be delayed because of the new fiscal year. Budgets haven’t been approved.
“It hurts a non-profit. Our shelves go down. Cash flow is tight. That’s when a lot of prayers go into play,” Johnny said.
Programs at Fayetteville Urban Ministry
Across Cumberland County, FUM serves 8,000 to 10,000 individuals and families per year, free of cost. The most well-known program is Find-A-Friend, which Johnny said is more well-known than FUM as a whole. What started with 15 to 20 kids paired with a volunteer mentor now serves 150 to 200 youth per year.
“These kids are at risk and court-involved. A lot of them are on probation. They’re referred to us by school principals, district attorneys, judges and school resource officers. What’s so amazing is that we have well over an 80% success rate.”
The program defines success as no longer receiving suspensions in school, no further court involvement and an increase in grades. FUM also holds after-school workshops that address topics such as peer pressure, sex, drugs, hygiene and communication skills with teachers.
In the summer, successful program participants can attend summer achievement camps, which include field trips to the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, Fort Fisher Aquarium and Myrtle Beach. Locally, they go ice skating, roller skating, rock climbing and to Putt-Putt.
Additionally, the program awards small scholarships toward college tuition. Johnny said that it used to be easy to decide which most-achieved student would receive funding.
“Now, we have to sit down and have a review panel because we have 15 or 20 kids applying to colleges and universities. It’s a whole different ballgame,” he said proudly.
The Emergency Services program, which Johnny describes as the “high octane area of the building,” is housed on the left side of FUM. It serves individuals and families in the height of need: those who have lost employment and await assistance from Social Services, those who are homeless and families in crisis. They can shop for food and clothing to “fill the gap.” Individuals and families who utilize this service come from every walk of life. Johnny stated, “We have started to see active military whose family size has outgrown their rank. They come in crying, but I tell them not to feel that way. I tell them that it is an honor to serve them because they have been serving and protecting us.”
Johnny reports that 24% of adults in Fayetteville and Cumberland County read at a 5th grade reading level or below.
“Our adult literacy program has been our best kept secret for years. It does magical things,” he said.
In addition to English as a Second Language (ESL) classes and GED preparation classes, FUM hosts a job coaching initiative which teaches individuals how to procure employment. “You know the saying, ‘If you teach a man to fish...’ Well, that’s what we’re doing here,” he said.
FUM’s Nehemiah Project began in 1994. For the low-income home owner on a fixed income, costs of repairs for roofing, HVAC work or even installing handicapped-accessible ramps could be the difference between having a home and homelessness. With grant funding from the City of Fayetteville, FUM addresses these costly repairs for homeowners within city limits. Each year, the program assists 170 to 200 homeowners.
There are no barriers to qualify for services at FUM, and they are always looking for volunteers. If you are in need, Johnny said, “All you have to do is raise your hand. You don’t pay anything.”
He continued, “So many of our folks that we help have turned out to be supporters or donors. We give them a toolkit. They’ve come back to be volunteers.”
Fayetteville Urban Ministry is located at 701 Whitfield Street. They can be reached at 910-483-5944 or online at www.fayurbmin.org.
By Courtney Phillips