Story and photos by Carla Kucinski

Gary Johnson had everything.

Money, prestige, a good-paying job and a condo to call his own.

And in one moment it was all taken away.

Three years ago, Johnson was involved in a severe car accident that caused a traumatic brain injury and loss of mobility. What followed were eight tumultuous months of black outs, daily and persistent headaches, short-term memory loss and angry outbursts.

As he recovered from his injuries at his sister’s home in Greensboro, N.C., his life back in Ohio fell apart. Piece by piece all of his possessions were stripped from him. His job. His car. His home. His clothing.

“I ended up losing everything,” Johnson said.

What he was left with was time; it gave him space in his life to reflect and evaluate the direction of his life — and he didn’t like where it was going.

Johnson describes his life prior to the accident as a life of “taking.” His sales job brought him money and prominence but not fulfillment. In fact, the morning of his accident, he was on his way to work to resign. The words of his father, “We still believe in you,” played over in his mind and propelled him forward. His car accident became the catalyst for his dramatic change and broke open his life.

“With all that stuff gone, I didn’t have to obsess over it anymore,” said Johnson, 44 of High Point. “I never had that much downtime where I didn’t have to be anywhere. It left me a lot of time to think about what was really important. … What was important was family and legacy.”

His legacy, he realized, was to help others and to give back to the community that helped him rebuild his life after his accident. Today, Johnson is a full-time student at Guilford Technical Community College, pursuing an Associate in Arts degree and an Associate in Applied Science degree in Human Services Technology. He also works at Successful Transitions LLC in High Point, a 24-hour facility helping at-risk youth, and previously volunteered at Open Door Ministries, a nonprofit agency in High Point that provides resources and assistance for low-income and homeless populations.

“GTCC gave me a chance in life,” Johnson said. “Before that I was just existing.”

Gary Johnson

Gary Johnson

Being homeless opened Johnson’s eyes. Shortly after recovering from his accident, he was finally getting back on his feet again. But because he was unable to stay at his sister’s home long-term, he ended up at Greensboro Urban Ministry’s Weaver House in High Point, where he would spend the next two months. It’s there that he found his calling to help others. He listened with empathy to peoples’ stories and gained humility and acceptance of his own life.

“A lot of people gravitated toward me,” he said. “It filled a want and a desire in me to help.”

That desire was palpable to Jason Yates, who met Johnson two years ago at the Veteran’s Safety Net, a housing program for veterans in High Point that helped Johnson transition out of homelessness. Yates is a clinical supervisor and counselor for Caring Services, the parent program to Veteran’s Safety Net. He saw in Johnson a passion for people and a drive to make a difference.

“It was clear he wanted to use the knowledge he had to benefit other people and benefit society,” Yates said. “He’s so driven, so motivated, and with that confidence he’ll be able to do a lot of things.”
It was Yates, a GTCC alumnus, who suggested Johnson enroll at GTCC.

“When we first met — when we started talking about going to school — it was an idea that sounded good, but it was so far away; it was hard to imagine it happening,” Yates said. “Now he’s starting to tap into his potential. He’s realizing that not only is it possible, but it’s a start. Seeing that growth and confidence (in him) has been really amazing.”

Johnson knew he had made the right decision coming to GTCC when he took one of his first classes, Introduction to Psychology with Dr. John McMurphy.
“He and psychology ignited something in me,” Johnson said. “It was something that felt natural; it felt so comfortable.”

McMurphy became Johnson’s mentor and encouraged him to pursue the psychology field. He also nominated Johnson for the Academic Excellence Award, one of the highest honors in the North Carolina Community College System given to one student from each of the 58 community colleges each year. And when Johnson won the award this year, McMurphy told him he was proud of him. That’s the last time Johnson saw him. A few days later, McMurphy passed away unexpectedly.

“I’m never going to forget him,” Johnson said. “When he said, ‘You can do this,’ you believed him. He was the right person with the right qualities at the right time who came into my life.”

Johnson will graduate from GTCC in spring 2016. He plans to transfer to a four-year institution to study psychology, and one day, get his doctorate. His brain injury still affects him some, but he’s doing better. And life, he says, is opening up now and the light is shining in.

“Everything fell into place. It was like it was meant to be,” he said. “I’m just amazed at what is available here (at GTCC) and the quality of the instruction. It’s opened doors for me to allow me to open doors for someone else.”


Published June 22, 2015