With wife Julie hand-in-hand with Ricky Johnson, I led the couple across an arched wooden bridge in the lush Botanical Gardens near UNCA. We all sat together on a rough-hewn stone bench aside a creek to unfold how the two of them crossed a bridge from a life of darkness and uncertainty and into a life where the hope for change became real. Julie’s life journey as a child in Southern Missouri was amazing in terms of how God put them together both individually in spirit and as a married couple. “I prayed God would drop someone into my life who understood me.” Julie knew Ricky was the one God had sent into her life. However, initially meeting Ricky in the rehab program in which she was a counselor, she was puzzled by God’s answer, “What in the world was I doing? This is crazy.” While in the program, they kept apart, with Ricky seeing other counselors. However, upon Ricky’s program completion, and the more they both prayed, Julie realized this was it. Ricky then reiterated, “Like I said, she saved my life, but I knew I needed to make serous changes to make this work.” Though Ricky is a man who exudes determination, in our conversation in the early evening amidst the flowers at the Botanical Gardens, Julie is his match. She’s like “quiet dynamite.” Throughout their courtship and even into their marriage today, they share scripture, their hearts, and their plan for the future. That reliance on God and each other led them to work through the next stages of Ricky’s recovery, marry, and eventually move to Ricky’s home state of North Carolina.
Ricky Johnson successfully worked out of rehab and into a halfway house he affectionately called “The Mission.” Their relationship continued to grow, the intensity of living at The Mission with others men in varied stages of recovery and relapse was an indication to Ricky that he needed to accelerate moving through this stage of life. He recalled, “It was an important step to live there, but I got sick of it, and I couldn’t stop thinking of her [Julie].” They did find ways to talk on the phone and share their mutual love for the Lord, the values and plans for a future, and their love for working out. Ricky also helped Julie find her voice and, “…stand up for herself,” while Julie helped Ricky find serenity and peace and break away from the excitement of a chaotic life. God’s peace was made real when they were together.
After they married, Ricky like many people with criminal records, though making tangible progress with great drive and skills, was turned down from several jobs. Mr. Johnson avoided self-pity and instead used his gifts and talents to spur others into recovery through YouTube videos, one-on-one talks with guys at the gym, and working for whomever would give him a chance. Julie Johnson discovered a counseling-type job in Asheville at a medically assisted opioid addiction treatment center. Both Ricky and Julie knew God was moving them to the next place to flourish for Him.
Weeks after arrival, Ricky Johnson attended a Marine Corp League meeting, met ABCCM’s Director of Veterans Services of the Carolinas (VSC), Brandon Johnson. Ricky’s passion for recovery, determination, and talent as a communicator led to Brandon connect Mr. Johnson to North Carolina Peer Support Training and eventually to employment at ABCCM.
Ricky Johnson is ABCCM’s first “America Serves” Peer Navigator for our Veterans seeking and maintaining living-wage careers, housing, and community connection. Earlier in the same day of this interview, Ricky worked with his first ABCCM client, an elderly Marine with landlord issues. But Ricky Johnson knew this man needed more. He needed someone to hear him out, not feel weak for seeking help, and connection to the brother-hood of hope offered through VSC and ABCCM. Ricky was equally excited to meet the next and then the next Veteran on his caseload, and be God’s living hope to Veterans who have lost hope. Ricky sees his work at ABCCM as more than a career, “I see a lot of potential working with VSC…God placed me here where…iron sharpens iron. Here I can motivate others to learn that they have potential and be accountable and compassionate in their own lives.” The three of us left the Botanical Gardens by crossing that same arched bridge back to our cars. It reminded me of the bridge Brandon crossed out of chaos and prison to a wife and a career with ABCCM. It’s now Ricky, Julie, and all of our turn to hold some hands of those in need and through ABCCM together cross a bridge into a new their life.
Brad Owen, Special Events Director