While in and out of jail for nearly a quarter-century, Jeffrey Johnson said he never felt like he could find the right support to help with addiction issues that kept cycling him through the justice system.
The Bentleyville native played football at Washington & Jefferson College, but didn’t graduate because of legal problems while he was in school in the early 1990s. That began the long cycle of incarceration in which drugs and related problems kept getting him in trouble.
“There were big opportunities for good but bigger opportunities to fall back into your older habits,” Johnson said about each time he was released from jail.
During his latest prison term in the early 2010s, he began reading books that resonated with him and started a diary to journal what he wanted to do with his life, which mainly revolved around helping others in similar positions. He also finally found the right programs in jail that helped to prepare him for success.
“I took part in those programs getting myself ready and able when I came home to succeed and not go back, and I made that not an option in my life,” he said of re-offending. “It takes a lot of focus and a change in your mind that all those things you bought into are all lies.”
When he was released in 2015, he decided himself to help others, but he couldn’t do it on his own. He rekindled a friendship with another Bentworth High School grad, which blossomed into love a couple of years later. Shakira and Jeffrey Johnson married in 2017 and have been working to create the Johnson-Shaw Foundation to help people reintegrate into society after leaving jail. What started as winter coat drives and bicycle giveaways is morphing into something much bigger.
“We ended up getting married and put money aside to help others,” Jeffrey Johnson said. “We were doing things out of pocket the last three years without the banner of the nonprofit. It’s just now beginning to see this take off.”
Shakira Johnson, whose maiden name is Shaw, worked as a licensed practical nurse in the Washington County jail, so she could relate with her husband’s struggles and his motivation to help others.
“This could you be your mom or dad. What makes you think you’re above any of these people?” she said. “I would like people to understand the perspective that people re-entering (society) really do need guidance and assistance.”
The couple filed for nonprofit tax-exempt status earlier this year and is now looking to expand their vision to help with transportation and job training. While most people living in Allegheny County have access to public transit, it’s not as prevalent in Washington, Greene and Fayette counties, where the foundation is hoping to focus its efforts. They’re still cultivating partnerships as the foundation remains a work in progress.
“I’m anticipating this is going to be taking off here,” Shakira Johnson said. “With all of the addiction and things in our area … I just have a feeling this is going to take off and help people to guide them in the right way. Even to open people’s eyes.”
After apprenticing for trade jobs and being accepted into the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Jeffrey Johnson is happy to be contributing to society both in his personal and professional life.
“He’s made strides. He amazes me all the time. He’s very humble and the hardest worker I’ve ever met,” Shakira said.
The foundation held its first board meeting in July after getting tax-exempt status in February, and now the couple is working on building a website and making contacts with organizations that need assistance. Jeffrey Johnson said he’s excited about what the future holds for the foundation and the people it will help.
“You have to focus and get yourself together while also opening the door to help others who want that help but don’t know they need it or don’t know where to find it,” he said.
Call 412-863-8425 to learn more about the Johnson-Shaw Foundation or to offer support.