Vera Johnson has been a leader at SBY for nearly 40 years. She is the soul of our agency. Read Vera’s reflections on the history – and enduring importance – of our mission.
As a small-town Jersey girl coming to Washington, DC to attend American University, I had no idea what would be in store for me and what I would discover as my mission in life.
As a requirement of my psychology degree, I had to complete an internship at a social service nonprofit. I was unsure where to do my internship as I was new to the D.C. area but a professor recommended Deborah Shore’s organization. At that time, the name of the organization was the Washington Streetwork Project, which would soon change its name to Sasha Bruce Youthwork (SBY).
I had never heard of a program like SBY but felt very comfortable from the beginning of my internship. The realm of homeless youth was new to me but I was intrigued and was very interested in becoming engaged. I had experience with volunteering as a counselor at a camp that served autistic children but I had never worked with runaway or chronically homeless young people.
My internship duties included doing street outreach and supporting the homeless youth drop-in center. A short while later I began working with young people at the newly-opened Sasha Bruce House, which was the organization’s first residential facility. We grew very close with the residents and provided them with a comfortable environment that felt like a real home. Staff shopped for food, transported clients to school or activities, cooked three meals a day, facilitated recreational activities, and engaged the families of the residents in counseling. Through the years, we became experts at working with families.
One of my favorite memories of SBY’s early days is that we never turned kids away. We would allow kids to sleep on the couch or with covers on the floor in lieu of sleeping on the streets. We utilized every possible space to ensure that young people were kept safe. This was a big difference from other youth-serving nonprofits at that time and we were known for our dedication and creativity. We would “turn every stone” to ensure that young people were provided a safety net.
I often get asked why I stayed at one organization for so long. One reason is that I have had the opportunity to grow and mature professional and clinically. I have worked as counselor, senior counselor, program manager, program director, and also a part of the administration leadership. Clinically, I have had the opportunity to be trained by who I view as the “Queen” of the competency-based (strength-based) approach we use with youth and families, Marianne Walters. Walters is the founder of the Family Therapy Practice Center and SBY was fortunate to have her as a consultant and trainer in the early years.
The competency-based approach that Walters taught us was part of what made SBY a pioneer in the early 80’s as we were the only organization practicing this type of approach when working with at-risk young people. Centered around the strengths that each young person and family holds, the approach calls for an observation of a family’s process and interactions. Many nonprofits today use a strength-based approach, but we were one of the first in the 80’s.
Another reason I’ve made SBY’s mission my life mission is that Sasha Bruce has continued to evolve to meet the urgent needs of youth and families. We expanded through the years to include teen mothers and their babies, youth in the foster care system, youth connected to the court, and other youth and families that find themselves in at-risk situations. Our contribution and commitment to provide programming to respond to the needs is essential to my personal belief system.
I view SBY as a pioneer when it comes to serving youth and families and I could tell we were different than other youth-serving nonprofits. Why leave the best? I love some of the innovative interventions that we provided to promote young people having safe and productive lives. Some that come to mind are the therapeutic horseback-riding program, a sports-officiating program that helped increase the self-esteem of young people as they learned a skill, the awesome therapeutic retreats for both youth and families.
Even though the times have changed and some of the responses to the changes in the community have changed, young people want meaningful relationships, caring adults in their lives; they want to be encouraged and supported to reach their goals. It brings tears to my eyes to think about SBY having its 40th anniversary. Financial challenges have occurred but we are surviving through them. We continue to appreciate the many collaborations and partnerships that we have to support us in the great success over these 40 years.
I cannot say enough about how supportive the SBYstaff has been and how much I’ve appreciated my work with Debby. I wish SBY many more years doing good work in D.C.
—Vera Johnson as recorded by Jill Cotton 8/25/14