Making a Difference: Criminal Justice Graduate Robert Johnson — a Former 'At-Risk Youth' — Creates Foundation to Help Others
"The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something. Don’t wait for good things to happen to you. If you go out and make some good things happen, you will fill the world with hope, you will fill yourself with hope." – Barack Obama
These words spoken by President Barack Obama resonate with Robert Johnson.
Once deemed an “at-risk” youth, the December 2013 graduate of Ferris State University never sat on his laurels. Instead, he looked the other way when trouble came calling and decided he wanted “to make good things happen.”
“Being an African American male raised by a single mother in Detroit, the odds were against me,” Johnson said. “But I wanted to be a leader.”
And, at 22, he is.
During his time at Ferris, Johnson’s journey to success meant dedication to his studies complemented by involvement on campus.
He earned a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice and was rewarded shortly after graduation, landing a customer service specialist position at General Motors with the potential to climb the ladder to a post in loss prevention or quality control, his career goal.
He honed his interpersonal skills by joining TOWERS, a leadership development program overseen by Ferris’ Office of Multicultural Student Services. He became a student leader for TOWERS, mentoring other students.
He joined registered student organizations, including Entertainment Unlimited and the Black Student Union. He served as vice president of the Residence Hall Association and became a member of Black Leaders Aspiring for Critical Knowledge, serving as membership chair, treasurer and eventually as president of the RSO, which promotes academic excellence and growth opportunities while deconstructing racial stereotypes.
Johnson’s work with B.L.A.C.K. led to his appointment as the Michigan organization’s first grand president, overseeing chapters at Ferris, Grand Valley and Eastern Michigan universities.
“Robert was one of our most resilient and outspoken student leaders,” said Michael Wade, OMSS assistant director. “He never takes no for an answer and always seeks out strategies to create solutions.”
His quest to “make good things happen” for himself and others didn’t stop with his responsibilities on campus. Johnson also started a nonprofit organization.
“I’ve always had a knack for solving problems and helping people,” he said. “I love to uplift, encourage and empower others.”
He created the Viola M. Benson Foundation for at-risk youth, senior citizens and single-parent families in need. It’s named for his great-grandmother, who once provided a home for him and his mother, Tamara Loyd, in their time of need.
“It’s kind of personal for me,” Johnson said. “I was raised by my mother — a single parent. We lived with my great-grandmother, a senior citizen. And I was considered an at-risk youth. I know what these three groups need. I can relate.”
The organization is designed to provide resources that prepare at-risk youth and single parents to be independent and successful, and to assist seniors with basic needs.
He told his great-grandmother years ago that he wanted to start a foundation in her name. He was inspired to do it a bit sooner than he planned after attending a conference last year.
“The speaker inspired me to act on my passions and stop waiting for the right time,” Johnson said. “It wasn't quite as easy as I thought it was going to be.”
He sought the advice of Wade and other mentors, including OMSS Director Matthew Chaney and Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion David Pilgrim — three of the “most amazing people and smartest men I’ve ever met.” He did the appropriate research and began the process of filing for state and federal non-profit status.
“There was a lot of work — creating policies, forms, disclaimers, waivers, mentor and tutor applications . . . once I started getting into it, I made a checklist and took it a day at a time,” Johnson said. “There are 21 pages alone of bylaws. It took about six months to set up.”
He was assisted by fellow Ferris graduate and friend Kiara Hunter, who earned a bachelor’s degree in Political Science with a minor in Community Studies in 2013, and Bianca Scott, a 2013 graduate of Grand Valley State University with a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a double minor in Sociology and Public Non-Profit Administration.
Scott serves as vice president of the foundation’s board of directors, while Hunter is secretary. The Detroit natives both work in service positions and also have plans to continue their education.
Johnson hopes to enlist additional support from Ferris alumni who understand the value of education to volunteer their time as mentors and tutors, and to serve on the board of directors. Seats are available to those with experience in fundraising, public relations and program coordination.
While still in the planning phase, Johnson would like to provide services for at-risk youth through a mentorship program in middle schools and high schools, and is in the process of reaching out to locations in the Detroit, Big Rapids, Grand Rapids and Muskegon areas.
“I know that’s going to be the hardest part, but it’s important,” he said. “I was considered at-risk — yes, I was exposed to kids who did drugs, sold drugs or both, who are in prison or dead, but I was taught right from wrong. I think everyone wants the chance at a successful life, and I think our foundation can help.”
Services for single-parent families and senior citizens, from home maintenance and financial support to providing job-search assistance, will be provided upon review of applications and available resources.
“We have a long way to go, but we will get there,” Johnson said.
Johnson credits TOWERS, B.L.A.C.K. and his other campus involvement with teaching him “organization and time management, leadership and confidence.”
“One of the best decisions I’ve ever made was to come to Ferris because of my (academic) program, and the people I’ve met and the opportunities I’ve had have been truly astonishing,” said Johnson, who is helping to establish an alumni chapter of B.L.A.C.K. “My professors were the best; they all have real-life experience in what they teach.”
He was especially fond of Mischelle Stone, an associate professor in the School of Criminal Justice.
“She was a tough teacher, but compassionate and understanding,” Johnson said. “I entrusted her with information about my family, my background . . . she helped me so much. If it wasn’t for her, I may not have graduated.”
That compassion, from his professors and mentors at Ferris to his great-grandmother, is what drives Johnson and his hopes for what the foundation can do.
“I didn’t see myself as at-risk,” he said. “Things some people might consider a challenge aren’t to me, even the single-parent thing — things happen. But I was lucky to have a loving home. My great-grandmother was a major influence in my upbringing. She helped raise me so my mother — she’s a chef now — could work. She always provided a place to stay for family members and gave money to help others pay their bills, even when she needed to pay her own. She taught me morals and values.
“She said she helped because she could. That’s what the foundation is about.”
Learn more about the Viola M. Benson Foundation, how to get involved or make a donation by visiting violambensonfoundation.org.