INDIAN RIVER — After retiring from 34 years of teaching in the Flushing School District, Dorothy Johnson did not sit still.
In fact, the 66-yerar-old still is on the run.
She has run in marathons around the world — New York, China, Berlin, Boston and her most recent accomplishment, her 25th marathon since 1999, the Bank of America Chicago Marathon.
That’s impressive enough but Johnson, who began running at the age of 41, completed her latest 26.2 miles — and raised more than $5,500 — for something close to her heart. She ran for charity and she ran to make a difference.
“I don’t run fast and I run one mile at a time,” said the Cross in the Woods parishioner. “However, this was my first run for a charity. I ran the Chicago Marathon to raise money for Casa de los Angeles , a daycare center I volunteer at in San Miguel de Allende, in Mexico. I contacted everyone I know to support me and they came through.”
Nearly seven years ago Johnson and her husband, John, who runs with her and serves as her coach, began volunteering at the Mexican daycare.
“We thought it would be a worthwhile outreach project,” said Johnson. “We saw it in our parish bulletin and we responded.”
At that time Br. Thom Smith, on staff at Cross in the Woods, coordinated a team of parishioners to head to Mexico to volunteer at the newly established Casa de los Angeles, founded in 2000 by Donna Quathamer, a Christian woman who felt compelled to open a safe haven for children of single, working mothers in a town with areas of minimal running water and electricity, serving the poorest of the poor.
“When we’re down there volunteering it’s different every time,” said Johnson. “We help the founder, Donna, and Miguel Hernandez Chavez, her Mexican co-director, in a variety of ways. We interact and assist the teachers with the children. It’s not easy because of our limited Spanish but we get by and use sign language a lot. We also help paint or do any repairs that need to be done on the daycare building. We take students on fieldtrips, prepare meals and snacks, prepare the room environment, help with stuffing envelopes or office work, help raise money for the school, work on public relations within the community and recruit new volunteers.”
In addition, small groups of volunteers sometimes went to the students’ homes to repair tin roofs, pour cement floors or construct bathrooms.
Demand for the daycare facility has grown — a second center was opened to serve the many children on a waiting list. Casa de los Angeles now serves 102 children from 83 families.
“We’ve seen the children grow up year after year,” said Johnson. “Many of them graduate from the daycare program but then enter the latchkey-type program designed to help older students have a safe place to work on homework and have a snack while their mothers are still at work.”
The daycare isn’t free. The mothers are obligated to serve one hour every day at the center. Most of the mothers have jobs as ‘domestics,” she said, so many of them volunteer in the classroom or kitchen before or after work.
“This is their payment to have their child attend the daycare,” said Johnson. “They’re grateful to have a safe place for their children to go to.”
Despite the demands of work, these women take good care of their children.
“It’s always amazing to me to see how clean the children come to us,” said Johnson. “Many of the families do not have running water but the children appear well-taken care of. They do not have much money but they are happy.”
Each mission trip has expanded Johnson’s cultural horizon. She and her have explored the countryside, taken Spanish classes, read books, sampled specialty foods and absorbed bits and pieces of the culture when they were not volunteering at Casa de los Angeles.
“In the beginning I felt somewhat guilty and as though I wasn’t doing enough,” she said. “I felt like I wasn’t giving as much as they were teaching me.”
Then Quathamer and other volunteers helped Johnson understand her function.
“My role was not to change the family,” she said. “As a volunteer I was there to work with them. I learned to support and value the families exactly as they were. This is how we were able to give them dignity and show appreciation and respect for them as they lived their life. Seeing their life, being in another culture is something we felt changed us as we witnessed it.”
Then Br. Smith, who now serves at a new parish, called her from St. Louis and asked her to raise money for Casa de los Angeles daycare by runn-ing in the Chicago Marathon.
“Running for Team Casa is something I couldn’t say no to,” said Johnson. “This is my way to help the children I love at the daycare in Mexico. I set a goal to raise more than last year’s Team Casa, which was about $2,700. I’m happy to say I more than doubled it and the money is still coming in.”
She has no marathons to finish in the near future, but Johnson will run again. She’ll run to make a difference.
To donate to Team Casa, send money to Casa de los Angeles, Team Casa, 1202 Shoals Drive, La Porte, Ill. 06441 (or donate on line at http://marathon.casadelosangeles.org/ (Dorothy Johnson) or mail to Casa de los Angeles,Prolongacion Pila Seca 18, Colonia San Antonio, San Miguel de Allende, Gto 37750, Mexico. To learn more, visit www.casadelosangeles.org.†