Sandy Johnson and her son, Jeff, were juggling the demands of classes and exams, jobs and family life in pursuit of associate degrees. They also were confronting what could have been an insurmountable obstacle: homelessness.
"This has been a tough semester, a tough year," said Sandy Johnson, 56. "There are times when you just have to keep breathing. You have to keep going."
The family did keep going, and it paid off. After nearly nine months without a home of their own, the Johnsons have a new apartment in Hickory Ridge, and Sandy and Jeff both walked across the Merriweather Post Pavilion stage as part of Howard Community College's largest graduating class in the school's 42-year history on Tuesday, May 21.
"This feels really good," said Jeff Johnson, 20. "It's like, I actually made it."
Speaking before an exuberant crowd at graduation, Board of Trustees Chairman Kevin Doyle acknowledged the struggles some HCC students face: balancing life, jobs, children and classes in pursuit of their degrees.
"It comes down to more than multi-tasking," he said. "You have our utmost respect and admiration for all the hard work that has brought you to this moment."
Jeff and Sandy Johnson may have fought harder for that moment than most of their fellow graduates. Now, with a degree in hand, Jeff Johnson hopes that "what happened can never happen again."
What happened is a long story, Sandy Johnson said — a story that starts nearly 20 years ago when her husband had his first heart attack.
Jeff Johnson was three months old; his older brother, Bobby, was 2. As the years progressed, Jim Johnson, now 61, developed heart disease, diabetes and emphysema. When he was let go from his job as a product information specialist at UNISYS in 2009, he was too sick to find another job and was denied disability. Sandy Johnson had been working at a call center at night and on weekends, but the center had closed when Jeff was a freshman at Oakland Mills High School.
The Johnsons were trapped in a situation similar to many when the economy crashed: Jim Johnson's unemployment benefits ran out, the family fell behind on the mortgage and Sandy couldn't find a full-time job with benefits or else her husband couldn't qualify for Medicaid. The family had to choose between paying the mortgage or paying for Jim Johnson's prescriptions, which total $1,000 a month.
"I was stuck," Sandy Johnson said. "We managed — with lots of luck and prayer — to hold on for almost four years. We were fortunate."
The luck ran out in July 2012, when the Johnsons lost their house in Owen Brown, where they had lived for almost 15 years.
"I think that was the worst part that I can think of — losing the house," said Jeff Johnson, a 2010 graduate of Oakland Mills. "I had been there so long, I couldn't remember any other place. I could literally walk through that house with my eyes closed and get where I needed to be. It was my safe place. The fact that it was gone ..."
Sandy Johnson picked up her son's trailing thought:
"My children walked through that house before it was even fully built," she said. "We were the first family to live there. When we lost it, I felt like I had let my kids down. I saw the pain they were going through and that ripped me apart more than anything. I mean, a mom's supposed to be able to fix everything."
Sandy Johnson fell into silence, and Jeff put his hand on her shoulder.
"We knew you were doing everything you could," he told her.
Jeff and Sandy Johnson still find it difficult to talk about the past year. After their house was sold, the family moved to a Super 8 for two weeks and then the Extended Stay America in Columbia Gateway. With the financial help of friends and money from student aid, the Johnsons were able to stay there until December.
But they ran out of money again, and the week before Christmas the Johnsons went to the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center, where they learned they would likely be split up, because neither Jeff nor Bobby were minors. That wasn't an option, Sandy Johnson said, even though Jeff had been invited to live with a friend.
"I felt guilty because I wanted to be with my family," Jeff Johnson said. "We're supposed to be sticking together. It was hard."
Jim, Sandy and Bobby Johnson, who is also a student at HCC, rotated among Howard County's cold weather shelters, and Jeff was able to stay with them for two nights over Christmas.
"We slept on pads on the floor, and there wasn't much to do other than read or talk," Jeff said. "But it was nice. I kind of feel this whole thing has made us closer. We're talking more."
When the cold weather shelters closed, the Johnsons — all four of them — went back to the Extended Stay in March. They knew they could afford only two months at the hotel, and Sandy Johnson was "praying for a miracle."
The miracle came toward the end of April, when the Johnsons learned they'd been approved for a two-bedroom apartment in the Bluffs at Hawthorn in Hickory Ridge. They're getting settled in the new place now, and since Jim Johnson is eligible for Social Security next year, the family thinks they're finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
"It's such a blessing," Sandy Johnson said. "I thank God every day."
With a roof over their heads and degrees to their names, Sandy and Jeff Johnson are looking to the future. Sandy Johnson has a degree in sociology and is applying for jobs in the area, including the Children's Learning Center at HCC, where she has worked part-time since 2011. With a degree in information technology network security, Jeff is also looking for work. Both are considering the pursuit of bachelor's degrees.
"We're still in the short-term planning phase," Jeff Johnson said. "We've got an idea of what we want, and we can make it because it seems that we're through the worst of it. We just have to get stable at the end. There were times I thought it wouldn't get better. You just have to keep going, I guess. One day you may feel like you won't make it to tomorrow, and then you're still there, however many weeks, however many tomorrows later. You just keep going."
Sandy Johnson credits HCC for helping the family make it through. Jeff has two part-time jobs at the college, as a tutor in the Learning Assistance Center and as a peer mentor for Project Access, a program to help students with learning disabilities. Beyond the part-time jobs, Sandy Johnson said the school's Helping Hands Fund — for students in dire financial need — and the availability of school psychologists have been a tremendous help.
"The whole place has a positive attitude," she said. "It's easier to stay positive when you're here."
Sandy Johnson said she has always been able to find the silver linings in the clouds of her life, but she's struggling to see the positive side of homelessness. It may be the fact that her family is closer than ever before, or the valuable social education her son Bobby, who has Aspergers, received by spending so much time around other people in the shelters.
"Maybe that's the lesson: life happens," she said. "I never thought, at the age of 56, I would be in this kind of position. But that's the thing — I would see these volunteers at the shelters, and I wanted to tell them: you could be one paycheck away from where I am now. There is a need for help when it comes to homelessness in Howard County. We were people who got hit by bad times. Somehow, you just keep going and when it feels like the end of the world, it's not."
This story has been corrected to address an earlier mistake. Jim Johnson was denied disability once.