Story of Hope: Johnni
It was here where I first met Johnni Olsen, the co-director of Women’s LifeChange (WLC).
She greeted me with a hug and invited me inside a cozy and spacious living room where I sat in on a Community Meeting – a designated time where the staff and residents of the women’s program informally gathered to share announcements, program goals, brief bible studies, self-evaluations, and whatever else is on everyone’s heart.
Once all the residents and staff had gathered, Johnni welcomed everyone with a warm smile and a prayer, and then shared the daily announcements.
When Johnni spoke, all eyes were fixed on her. She spoke with a sense of command and authority while maintaining gracious and hospitable presence. Everyone in the room was drawn to her bright energy.
Johnni opened her Bible and began to read scriptures concerning fasting.
“Johnni, what is a true fast?”
“I don’t know what to fast! What do I choose?”
“How do I stay focused while praying?”
The residents were curious, hungry to understand more. Johnni smiled and patiently began to answer each of the questions.
It doesn’t take too long to see that Johnni serves as a protective shepherd to the women at LifeChange. She looks at her residents very tenderly, acknowledging the pain they’ve suffered, and offering everything she can to help them.
“After working with these women in Portland, we see more pain in a day than most people should see in a lifetime,” says Johnni. “But we also see God move. Women who are here, they’ve not given up on life. They want to change. And they will do whatever it takes to get that change. It takes an awful amount of strength… it takes a lot of courage to survive what they’ve survived. And they’re still willing to risk and trust us? That’s a miracle from God.”
UGM was able to lease a building for the women in LifeChange in December of 2013. After months of searching and planning, the dream of establishing a women’s center, a safe haven for the women residents and their children, was coming alive.
Johnni was excited – not only was she able to start her new job as co-director of the women’s center, but also, she was going to be living with the residents.
“I’ve always had a passion to live in the community that I work in,” says Johnni. “So I’ve always tried to live close to the facilities that I’ve worked in. So when the opportunity arose that I could live in property with the women, that’s what sold me.”
Johnni moved into the facility early December only to realize that the building was in no condition for the women to live in.
There weren’t enough of beds and linens for everybody. The running water was a dark-rust color. Many toilets were missing. The furniture was in bad condition. There was no sufficient heating.
They didn’t even have food to feed the residents who were to move in within two days.
But Johnni wasn’t about to give up – she fought the only way she knew how.
“We started praying. We started praying for food,” says Johnni.
“And a pastor came in that day and said, ‘We heard you came into town, and we wanted to know if you needed anything.’ And we said, ‘Yes, we need food!’ And so he brought a whole big van full of food. And for six weeks, we did not have to spend any budget money for food. Churches and people kept bringing, and bringing, and bringing us food.”
Slowly but surely, Johnni transformed the entire building into a habitable home for the 21 women enrolled in LifeChange.
Johnni, alongside Gloria Hall (co-director of the women’s program) and the rest of her staff of counselors and case workers, have transformed the WLC to be a program where the residents are able to grow and foster a healthy, safe, and fulfilling life.
“The ministry we do here is a grace-processing ministry, rather than behavioral modification,” Explains Johnni. “It’s a lot easier to do behavioral modification because you’re just dealing with behaviors and changing them. Here, we don’t want to make anybody do anything – we walk alongside the women. It takes a lot more time.”
WLC operates differently from the men’s LifeChange program in order to cater to women’s unique needs.
The program is broken down into three phases: Basic Services, One Year Program, and Transitional Phase.
Basic Services is three months long and it provides newcomers a basic understanding of the many factors that might have led to their lifestyle choices; subjects such as domestic violence, drug use, and the basics of Christianity are tackled.
The One Year Program is tailored to individual needs, and dives deeper into the various subjects focused during Basic Services.
The Transitional Phase focuses on training and educating the women so they are ready for employment and a safe, self-sustained lifestyle.
While WLC is still new and fresh, it has come a long way in the past seven months. And Johnni is optimistic for its growth.
“I would definitely like to grow,” says Johnni. “I think 48 would be the highest number of women I would want to work with. You can’t get too big – you lose a sense of community. If it grows beyond that, I would like to have more than one facility.
“My hopes for the women… [are] for them to experience Jesus in a way that is so personal, that the relationship continues to grow. I don’t want them to have an amazing relationship while they’re here, walk into the real world, and get caught up in the world. So that’s what we’re trying to establish here – an amazing personal relationship.”
This is the second installment of the Story of Hope series. CLICK HERE to read the series introduction. The Story of Hope series is authored by Leah Abraham, George Fox University student and Union Gospel Mission intern