Check the article below by Ryan Chatelain & the Times-Picayune
YOUTHFUL EXUBERANCE WITH A PURPOSE
WNBA star offers HOPE to underprivileged youth in New Orleans and Kenner through her non-profit foundation
Thursday, November 26, 2009
By Ryan Chatelain
Bob Starkey points out that there are many similarities between the Temeka Johnson who guided the Phoenix Mercury to a WNBA title last month and the Temeka Johnson who helps children and schools through her foundation.
"When you watch Temeka play, her entire game is about setting people up," said Starkey, associate coach for the LSU women's basketball team. "The records she owns around here, most are about assists. And now in her personal life, she's doing the same thing. She's passing out assists through her foundation. I think she's somebody who enjoys helping people do what they need to do."
Johnson, a 5-foot-3 point guard who played at Bonnabel High School and LSU, finished fourth in the WNBA in assists last season. As a member of the Washington Mystics in 2005, she was chosen the Rookie of the Year. She also led the Lady Tigers to two Final Four appearances.
But Johnson takes pride in her work off the court, too. Her youth-focused HOPE Foundation awards college scholarships and rewards hard-working, underprivileged students with free haircuts, shoes or Christmas shopping sprees. She often visits schools to talk to students about education and self-esteem.
"I think it's important for the kids to know that being a star athlete is not all about the glamour," said Johnson, who won an award from the WNBA in June for her community work and currently is playing in Israel. "I want to be visible enough for them to see that you still have to be a human. You still have to have great character. You still have to be a role model. It's not about the nice cars and the nice rims and all that kind of stuff.
"Plus, I'm from the exact same environment they're from, and I want them to see that you can make it."
Each year, the foundation "adopts" a school. Johnson meets with educators to learn about the school's needs, then raises money to address those shortcomings. Last month, the foundation adopted Washington Montessori School in Kenner.
Johnson's grandmother, Jewel Johnson, who died of cancer in 2008, inspired Temeka Johnson's work with schools. Jewel Johnson was a longtime teacher at Washington, and HOPE named its four scholarships in her honor.
"Education is important, and the kids of today are really our future," Johnson said. "It seems like the education system is falling and dropping lower and lower each year, and kids are not caring about education as much. So I just want to do anything that I can to express the importance of education."
Johnson set her sights on starting a foundation as early as her junior year at LSU. One evening, she walked into Starkey's office and told him about her plan to help people. The two met every few months afterward to discuss the possibility as Johnson researched other charitable groups and crafted her vision for her own foundation. She planned to carry on with the plan whether she played professional ball or not, said Starkey, who serves on HOPE's board and contributes financially.
The name HOPE stands for "heaven opens people's eyes" and is more than a clever acronym, Johnson said.
"Ever since I've been playing this game, everyone has always come at me -- young people, old people, small, tall, short, it didn't matter -- everybody's always told me that I've given them hope," Johnson said. "And when I look at it, it doesn't take anything to give anybody hope. Some kinds words can give them hope, a hug, a pat on the back, just a congratulations."
Johnson has a classic underdog story. The diminutive guard was often told she was too short to play college and professional basketball. LSU fan Tracy Ford was inspired by Johnson's play and has closely followed Johnson's career and donates a monthly check to the foundation.
"I just love the way that she's handled herself," said Ford, 48. "She's a wonderful person. She's got a good heart. Kids her age these days, some of them don't care too much. They don't give back. It's great to see that she's giving something back."
Because WNBA salaries pale in comparison to the pay of major-league men's sports, Johnson's foundation relies more heavily on grassroots fundraising. That suits Johnson just fine.
"It's a lot more fundraising, but you know what though, it's a lot more fun, too," Johnson said. "Because it keeps me involved. I don't just want my name to be used for something. I want to be involved in everything."
Starkey said it's tough to say no to Johnson.
"Temeka's passion gets you excited," he said. "Temeka hasn't come in touch with anybody and talked about her foundation where they haven't come on board in some form or fashion. It just seeps through her pores how much this means to her."