Former foster kid pays it forward with Round Rock emergency shelter

Stacy Johnson spent her childhood in foster care; now she’s built a place for children and teens in need.


Highlights

By the time she was 14, Stacy Johnson had lived in 10 different foster homes.

As an adult, Johnson couldn’t stop thinking about a dream she had — to open her own shelter for foster children.

It was important to Johnson to accept boys and girls so that sibling groups could be placed together.

It’s Friday night at the Central Texas Table of Grace, an emergency children’s shelter in Round Rock, and the house is buzzing.

In one room, a 14-year-old expertly covers the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” on his electric guitar, while a pigtailed 12-year-old practices a cheer routine with shelter founder and CEO Stacy Johnson in another.

When one of the teen residents returns after seeing her biological mom for the first time in 13 years, Johnson approaches with a hug.

“What was it like?” Johnson asks. “Are you OK?”

“It went well,” the girl says, smiling at Johnson. “I’m surprised I didn’t cry.”

Johnson, 35, is uniquely positioned to offer support to the children who walk through these doors because she, too, grew up in foster care, entering the system at age 2 and staying in it until she opted to emancipate and be legally recognized as an adult at age 16. After jobs in both the finance and automotive industries, she decided to heed her lifelong dream of running an emergency shelter for fellow foster children, weathering ups and downs to build Central Texas Table of Grace from the ground up.

To visit Central Texas Table of Grace, which opened in summer 2015 and accepts children ages 6 to 17 who have nowhere else to go, is to discover a place where fresh flowers adorn the tables, music radiates from the corners, and hair-braiding techniques, spelling words and soccer practice are frequent topics of discussion. There are hard topics and hard days, too, which Johnson doesn’t sugarcoat, instead offering compassion, empathy and warmth to the children and teens as someone who has stood in their shoes.

RELATED: Church, foster care agency join forces to help kinship family

“What I want to tell them is, ‘I’m no different than you.’ I don’t have anything special. I’ve been through a lot of hard things, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” Johnson said. “It’s hurting now, but you’re going to be really strong in the end. It’s not all stress and turmoil and sadness. There’s so much more.”

Growing up in care

Johnson was born in California and entered the foster care system at age 2 as a result of neglect due to her mother’s alcoholism. By the time she was 14, she had lived in nine foster homes, some of which were abusive. Johnson’s mother couldn’t care for her, but she and Johnson did build a relationship during Johnson’s tween and teen years.

“I remember riding the bus downtown to see my mom, and she was basically living in the park,” said Johnson, who moved around so much as a child that she doesn’t recall the names of some of the cities where she lived. “She would use her food stamps and we would get French bread and spinach dip and sit in the park and eat. We developed this relationship, but she never was able to get it together.”

When she was 15, Johnson moved into a group home in Paradise, Calif., and told a therapist there that she wanted to work toward emancipation, to be considered an adult legally in the eyes of the system.

“I remember him looking me up and down and going, ‘Well, you’re a little rough around the edges, but you can do it. But you’re going to have to get right to work,’” Johnson said. “He bought me the book ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens,’ and that book literally changed my entire life. Everything you would learn in a ‘normal’ household, this book teaches you. He gave me the book and helped me start applying for jobs. He touched my life in such a big way.”

Johnson worked in a nursing home while completing her high school courses, and at age 16, exhausted by the rejection she had experienced so frequently in her short life, she went before a judge and asked to be emancipated.

“Kids get on the merry-go-round of placements and it’s hard to get off,” said Patrick Foster, administrator at Central Texas Table of Grace who has worked in various foster care positions around the state for 45 years. “It’s pretty unusual, what happened to Stacy, for a judge to agree to emancipate her at 16. She convinced a judge that she could do a better job than the state of California.”

Johnson said she’ll never forget that day.

“(The judge) asked me to stand up and said, ‘All I ever see in the courtroom is heartache and pain and suffering, but you’re a success story,’” Johnson said. “‘You’re going to make it.’”

Taking a chance on Texas

After emancipation and graduation, Johnson moved to Bend, Ore., where she had a successful career as a financial adviser for nearly a decade.

Then, after giving birth to her daughter, Rhema, and breaking up with her boyfriend, she decided she needed a change. Although she had never been to Texas, she set her sights on Austin.

“I sold everything I owned, got on a plane with my 7-month-old baby and moved here,” said Johnson, who came to Austin in 2012. “Austin had such a community about it, there are things to do everywhere, all the time.”

Johnson began working long hours at a car dealership but couldn’t stop thinking about the dream she had had since she was a child — to open her own shelter for foster children.

“My first year I made $100,000, but I was not seeing my child,” Johnson said. “Her first word was ‘Bella.’ Do you know who Bella is? The babysitter’s dog.”

Around the same time, Johnson met Bill Krassner on Match.com. On their third date, she told him about her idea for a shelter.

RELATED: A glimpse into the life of a first-time foster family

“The second she started talking about it, I didn’t see any reason she couldn’t do this,” Krassner said. “I encouraged her immediately. I could see how passionate she was about giving back and helping kids that were in situations that were similar to what she had experienced in her youth. She’d say, ‘I don’t have the ability to do it.’ And I’d say, ‘Yes, you do.’”

That same night, Krassner emailed her an e-book that contained a step-by-step guide to opening a shelter.

“By 10 a.m., I had read the whole book and I was, like, on step five,” said Johnson, who has now been with Krassner for almost five years. “I was like, ‘I’m doing this. I’m ready.’”

First, though, Johnson needed to find a job that would allow her to continue to pay the bills while also giving the flexibility to pursue her dream of opening a shelter. Enter Lisa Copeland, a well-known marketer and fundraiser who at the time was a managing partner of a local Fiat store.

“(My friend) told me I needed to meet her because she had this audacious dream of building a children’s shelter and she needed someone to help her get it done, to mentor her and open some doors,” Copeland said. “I agreed to take a meeting with her, and the first time I met her I just fell in love with her. She’s just infectious.”

Copeland offered Johnson a special schedule at Fiat, made some “strategic introductions” in the interest of the shelter and also helped Johnson with fundraising.

“I was just the vehicle for somebody who was absolutely meant to change the world,” said Copeland, her voice quivering with emotion. “That’s what she’s doing.”

A seat at the table

Before long, doors started opening.

Randell Casey of CyberDefenses offered Johnson a building space in Round Rock with a deferred rent. John King Construction agreed to do the facility’s needed $50,000 remodel for free. And members of the local community, many of whom did not know Johnson, banded together to help raise the $75,000 — or three months of operating expenses — she needed to have in the bank before she could accept her first placement of a child.

“All the love and support that I was missing in my childhood, I was getting then,” Johnson said. “It just healed my heart of every past abuse. I wanted to help the kids, but in my journey to help them I was healed, because I realized that people do care and they are good and there are people who want to help. All these miracles happened.”

Copeland remembers walking into the shelter in summer 2015 for the first time.

“I just broke down in tears. I couldn’t believe it, from that girl I had met a year earlier who just had a dream, no money, no backing, had never raised money before, really didn’t know many people, to what she had built,” Copeland said. “She’s making a lot less money, she’s working a lot harder and she’s stretched further than she’s ever been stretched. It’s impressive.

“She came through the system and became a wild success, and there’s no better role model or leader for these young people to see than her,” Copeland added.

Every year, more than 17,000 children are removed from their homes by Child Protective Services in Texas, and frequently teens are the most difficult to place. Although children and teens placed at Central Texas Table of Grace, which can house up to 13 people, aren’t supposed to stay longer than 90 days, some have stayed for a year simply because there was no other place for them to go. It was important to Johnson to accept both boys and girls so that sibling groups can be placed there together.

RELATED: A day in the life of a CPS investigator

When children arrive at Central Texas Table of Grace, they receive a welcome basket filled with items such as flashlights, toiletries, water bottles, candies and their own copies of “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens,” the book that Johnson said changed her life. When children leave the shelter, Johnson signs the book and writes a personalized message.

Rather than feeling institutional, the shelter feels homey, with bright artwork, inspirational signs saying things like “You are beautiful, you are strong, you are worth it,” and even an on-staff cook who invites residents to make dishes like homemade corn dogs with her.

“The minute you come into the door, it’s welcoming,” said administrator Foster. “Our No. 1 goal is to keep you safe, and our second one is to be a fierce advocate. We try to be as warm and inviting as we can.”

Although Johnson lives in Lakeway and is also pursuing her college degree in public administration, she works full time at the shelter on weekdays and many nights and weekends, too, frequently accompanied by her daughter, Rhema, who is now 6 and in kindergarten.

“She’s a mom of 14 kids — she treats the kids at the shelter just like she treats her daughter,” boyfriend Krassner said. “She’ll come home crying probably four or five times a month about how concerned she is about the kids and how they’re doing and what their futures are because it’s a tough deal they’ve been dealt.”

Johnson makes a point to ensure that children and teens at the shelter learn life lessons, such as how to get an ID card and how to do laundry, but she also carves out time for fun outings at places such as Austin’s Park n’ Pizza.

“They’ve taken care of brothers and sisters, they’ve gotten themselves to school, they’ve taken care of Mom or Dad,” Johnson said. “They’ve done all these things, and they haven’t gotten a chance to be a kid.”

Johnson added that her own mom got sober five years ago and the two now have a strong relationship. Copeland said Johnson is the type of person to always look for a silver lining.

“She’s a very brilliant woman, but she’s also got the innocence of a child,” Copeland said. “She’s somebody who still believes in the goodness of humanity unlike anyone I’ve ever met. She believes if she goes out and does her best, things will happen for her and things will happen for these kids. How do you not support that?”



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