Volunteer takes his service cross-country

While showering one May evening, Minnesota native Drew Johnson had an epiphany.

Drawing upon the three things he loves most — traveling, technology and helping others — Johnson decided to drive through all 48 contiguous states and volunteer in each one for a week.

A year later, Johnson is now in his 34th state: Maryland.

Just five months after he had the idea, the 31-year-old Web designer and AmeriCorps veteran began his service-based journey through America.

"I talked with some friends, worked it out and they said I had to do this," Johnson said. "So I stepped out last October. I took a week off to do my taxes and another week to help my parents move, but otherwise I've been on the road."

Meals on Wheel of Central Maryland was the recipient of Johnson's good will this week. Johnson helped package and deliver meals to the elderly in northern Baltimore County. On Friday, Johnson plans to work at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington to speak with veterans and families through Yellow Ribbon, an outreach program for veterans.

"He's a 6-foot-5 ball of energy," said Peggy Toole, site coordinator of Meals on Wheels' Sherwood site. "He's a great guy — I've never met someone like him."

"We can always use volunteers," said Debbie Brown, public relations manager of Meals on Wheels of Central Maryland. "They're the backbone of our organization."

Johnson has used his Web-design background to create a site for friends and followers to keep track of his whereabouts and activities. In addition to blogging, Johnson advertises his current projects and highlights what type of people might also enjoy them. Johnson describes one of his objectives as "connecting people to local organizations and connecting organizations to local people."

Living out his dream is not always easy.

"I'm traveling in a 2002 Mazda Protege with 168,000 miles on it. I'm about 6 foot 5 inches, and I sleep in the front seat with the back seat down," Johnson said. "It's not comfortable."

A firm believer in "kindness begets kindness," Johnson has relied on the good will of others to help support him through his traveling. Through social networking tools such as Facebook, he has found some places to stay, including with his seventh-grade best friend and a former baby sitter.

"It's kind of a fun little reunion tour," Johnson said with a smile.

Strangers have also helped Johnson along the way. He described a time in Bismarck, N.D., when the temperature was 10 below and the only available hotels were more than he could afford.

"My plan was to go to Walmart and buy some cheap hand warmers and cover myself with them while I slept in the back of the car."

While in the parking lot, Johnson noticed a man whose car needed a jump-start. After he helped him start his car, the two started talking and Johnson mentioned where he'd be spending the night.

"He told me that his father booked hotel rooms, and he could find me a room and it wouldn't cost [me] a penny," Johnson said. "I slept in a hotel room that night."

Johnson relies on the kindness of others for his mission: Donations have dwindled, even though he's a "self-proclaimed minimalist who just eats cereal and peanut butter."

Cold nights and stiff necks aside, Johnson has no regrets about his trip and looks optimistically to the future.

"I just don't see a finish on this, that's the whole weird part," he said. "If you were to ask me if I would do a second tour, absolutely. I'd like to take more people with me next time."

Delaware is Johnson's next destination, but he has no specific volunteering plans.

"I try to schedule things ahead of time where people can contact me through the website, but then I'll get to towns and just ask where's a good place to serve," Johnson said. "I'll help people move or do yardwork.

"I don't know why it's my passion in life. I'm cursed with it, I guess, but I love it."

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