The middle school art room of Greene-Hills School in Bristol is a hub of activity – students are coming and going, asking for permission slips for special trips, doodling on the white boards, or just coming in and sitting down to talk with their favorite art teacher, Joe Johnson. They call him “chill” and “cool,” but it’s also apparent that these students trust Johnson, and are learning some valuable lessons from him – both inside the classroom and out.
Johnson, originally from Jersey City, N.J. moved to Bristol with his parents when he was just 10 years old. Around the same time, he says, he discovered his love for art.
“We were not a wealthy family, but we didn’t ever lack anything we truly needed,” he shared during an interview in his second floor classroom of the relatively new school building located off Pine Street. “My father used to bring home work papers, and I would draw on the blank side. I didn’t complain because it wasn’t a bound sketch book – all I needed was a blank space to create in.”
Johnson taught at Bristol’s Memorial Boulevard Middle School before moving to Greene-Hills when it opened four years ago. Now, in his 39th year as an art teacher, Johnson is thinking about what will happen to several of the traditions he’s instilled in the school’s fabric once he’s ready to retire.
“There are students and faculty that work with me on these projects every year, I’m just not sure who will pick up the reins once I’m gone – maybe I’ll just have to volunteer to keep them running,” he said.
One such long-standing tradition is Johnson’s volunteerism at Walk MS, an annual fund raiser for the National MS Society, Connecticut Chapter, which occurs each spring. For more than two decades, Johnson has spent his Sunday of April vacation volunteering, along with his students, to provide face painting at the Cheshire Walk MS site. They donate their time, materials and talents to the cause.
“I was originally inspired to volunteer with the National MS Society through personal connections – there was a teacher who has since retired who had MS, and my cousin’s sister also is living with the disease,” said Johnson. “Currently, there’s a faculty member at Greene-Hills who has MS, too.”
More than 6,500 Connecticut residents have self-identified with the National MS Society, Connecticut Chapter, as living with MS, a potentially debilitating disease. The cause is unknown and there is currently no cure. Symptoms can include numbness in the limbs, difficulties with vision and speech, stiffness, loss of mobility and, in some more severe cases, total paralysis. The progress, severity and specific symptoms of MS in any one person cannot be predicted.
Johnson teaches his students that their art, their creativity, is worth something – and in a very tangible way. Each year, members of his classes and Art Club sell items they’ve made during parent-teacher conferences, such as decorated pumpkins. The money raised through the sale is then divided up based on students’ choices, including hundreds of dollars donated each year to Walk MS.
Funds raised through events such as Walk MS ensure ongoing scientific research to find better treatments and a cure, and provide vital programs and services offered by the chapter. While there is no fee to register for Walk MS, participants are encouraged to form teams and raise funds.
When asked why they like to volunteer with their teacher, students gave varying answers.
“Volunteering is important for our school and for our community,” said seventh-grader Lauren.
“I like painting, practicing and seeing what people like,” said sixth-grader Rachel. “Last year, a heart with ‘MS’ inside of it was popular.”
Two eighth-graders, Stephanie and Meagan, said they’ve volunteered every year because of how much Johnson inspires them. The two even received an award from Newtown for their acts of kindness.
“We are very fortunate to have a teacher like Joe Johnson,” said Scott Gaudet, principal at Greene-Hills School. “Joe gives everything he has to the students of Greene-Hills each and every day. He is as passionate about teaching art, as he is about molding students into responsible citizens.”
In addition to painting faces at Walk MS, Johnson and his students have also provided help in handing out lunches to walk participants, directing, and helping Society staff pack up materials at the end of the day. All in all, their help does not go unnoticed year after year.
“Joe and his students have become a staple at Cheshire’s Walk MS,” said Kate Moore, volunteer outreach coordinator for the National MS Society, Connecticut Chapter. “To know that we have such a reliable and generous group joining us year after year makes the planning process go smoothly – and they do a great job.”
Johnson has also noticed a different side of students when volunteering in the community.
“At Walk MS, sometimes I’ve observed a student who is normally a little rough around the edges working wonderfully with children,” he explained. “I watched others develop compassion through working with people with disabilities – that’s nothing I could teach in the classroom. I think the kids know the impact they’re having.”
This year, Greene-Hills School will once again be painting faces at the Travelers Walk MS in Cheshire Sunday, April 17, – the last day of their spring vacation. Check in for the 2016 Travelers Walk MS opens at 9 and the walk begins at 10 a.m.
The Cheshire site will feature a Mission Station- an exciting way for walkers to get involved, get information, earn rewards and gather some team spirit for the walk. Lunch will be provided by Subway Restaurants, Cola-Cola and Crystal Rock. Music will be provided by 99.1 PLR.
“Volunteering at Walk MS is a rewarding day for all of us,” said Johnson. “Sure, it’s a long day, but when you get home late that afternoon, you feel great. You feel like you’ve made a difference. And that’s why we keep coming back for more.”
For more information on the Travelers Walk MS or services offered by the National MS Society, Connecticut Chapter, go to ctfightsMS.org.