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Fostering Grace

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Former foster child Stacy Johnson draws on her own turbulent past to heal others at her Round Rock, Texas, shelter, Central Texas Table of Grace.

By Rachel Rascoe, Photos by Rudy Arocha, Styled by Ashley Hargrove, Makeup by Gertie Wilson, Shot on location at Lone Star Court.

At 14, after being shuffled between foster homes and family members, Stacy Johnson sought stability.

“After my ninth placement, I asked my social worker, ‘Can I go to a group home?’ ” Johnson recalls, “because I thought, ‘I’m just sick of moving around. I can take care of myself better.’ ”

Her social worker warned Johnson of strict rules and limitations, but the self-driven teenager persisted.

“I was like, ‘But if I do my chores and I follow the rules, I could stay there, right? That’s where I want to go.’ ”

It was there, in a group home in California, that Johnson first developed the dream of one day opening up a shelter of her own. A therapist in the home helped her achieve emancipation by age 16, an outcome that completely reframed the teen’s outlook.

“I wanted to be there for kids in the same way my therapist was for me,” Johnson says. “He was in my life for less than six months, but it changed the trajectory of my entire life. I thought, ‘What if I could do that for a lot of kids?’ ”

Today, Johnson serves as the CEO of Central Texas Table of Grace, an emergency children’s shelter in Round Rock, Texas. In her leading role, the former foster kid and nonprofit founder builds on her past to provide a loving home for those in need.

“I can relate to what they’re going through,” Johnson says. “There’s that element of trust that I get automatically. When they can begin to trust, they can begin to heal.”

Her Start

Johnson entered the foster-care system at just 2 years old. Her grandparents, unable to care for her themselves, were concerned the toddler was being neglected because of her mother’s alcoholism. After that, Johnson ended up in an abusive foster home until age 11. When she found out her mother had been trying to contact her, she requested to be moved to Chico, Calif., so the two could visit. There, Johnson developed a relationship with her mom for the first time.

“She was my best friend,” Johnson remembers. “She was living in the park, and I would ride the city bus to hang out with her. We would go in the grocery store with her food stamps and get spinach dip, bread and éclairs.”

By the time she was 14, Johnson had been passed between nine foster homes, including unsuccessful arrangements with various family members. Throughout her tumultuous early years, Johnson credits her success in school to her voracious love of reading.

“The one thing I did consistently throughout my whole life is read books,” she says. “That’s what allowed me to get through a lot of what I was dealing with. If I read a book, I could be there instead of here. It was like magic.”

Her Realization

After moving to a group home in Paradise, Calif., at the age of 15, Johnson set her sights on achieving legal emancipation. The self-starting teen wanted out of the system, and she turned to her group-home therapist, Russ Hansen, for help.

Hansen ended up being an influential force in Johnson’s development. He helped her get a job at a nursing home and allowed her to work full time while finishing her high-school coursework.

Drawing on her love of reading, Hansen gave Johnson the book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens. She says the book completely flipped her mindset.

“It was like he gave me the secret formula to life,” Johnson remembers. “It was this incredible lesson in taking responsibility for your own actions and feelings. It was about just being able to put the work in.”

At 16, Johnson went before a judge and asked to be emancipated.

“It was another defining moment in my life,” Johnson insists. “The judge said, ‘All I ever see in this courtroom is heartache, pain and suffering, but you’re a success story. You’re going to make it. I’ll be happy to grant emancipation.’ ”

Her Stepping Stones

Living on her own, Johnson devised a plan to fill in the gaps of her disrupted childhood. Inspired by those seven habits, she devoured self-help and self-improvement books.

“I’ve probably read, like, every self-help book,” Johnson admits. “I love it because it’s showing me that I have control. I can make my mind work for me.”

She remembers struggling to cook for herself and clean her apartment, having never learned how to successfully complete such chores in her childhood homes. She ate fast food for every meal until seeing an infomercial for P90X, a series of workout videos with accompanying meal plans. The recipes taught her the basics of cooking, and she later hired a life coach to assist in her self-designed path to a successful adulthood.

Johnson now attempts to teach these essential life skills to the kids at her emergency shelter. Upon arrival at Central Texas Table of Grace, every child receives a welcome basket, which includes The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens, as well as toiletries, a flashlight, an MP3 player and, for girls, a makeup bag.

Her Dream

After working as an account manager at Kinko’s, Johnson began an almost decade-long career as a financial advisor in Oregon. At 29, she sold everything and moved to Austin with her newborn daughter.

While working long hours at a car dealership, Johnson found herself revisiting her childhood ambition of opening a shelter for foster children.

After settling into her new life in Austin, Johnson met Bill Krassner through match.com. On their third date, she told him about her experience in foster care and her dream of starting a shelter. The two have now been together for almost five years.

“We were in the middle of dinner, and he was like, ‘If that’s your dream, I think you should just do it,’ ” Johnson recalls. “I just laughed at him like, ‘I’m a single mom. I can’t just quit my job and start a nonprofit, but thanks.’ At the end of the date, he walks me to my car and goes, ‘Look, I really can’t stop thinking about this.’ ”

Later that night, Krassner emailed Johnson an e-book with a step-by-step plan for how to open a shelter. Johnson read the whole book overnight.

“I was on step five by 10 a.m.,” Johnson says. “I knew this was what I was supposed to do. When I started doing those steps, it didn’t feel like work. It felt exciting, and I felt passionate about it.”

To begin her journey of building a home for foster children, Johnson needed a job with more flexible hours. She connected with Lisa Copeland, a local powerhouse figure in sales, marketing and fundraising. At the time, Copeland was a managing partner at the local Nyle Maxwell Fiat dealership.

Won over by Johnson’s story and infectious earnestness, Copeland gave her a job with specially reduced hours at Fiat. Johnson also credits Copeland as an integral source of support and guidance in the formation of Central Texas Table of Grace.

“She was larger than life,” Johnson says. “She had plenty on her plate, but this woman stopped her life multiple times to do things for me. She always built me up. I looked up to her, and I believed everything she told me to do.”

Her Climb

To get the ball rolling, Johnson applied for nonprofit designation and began crowdfunding through social media.

“From being in sales, I literally thought I was going to go from business to business, tell them what I was doing and they were just going to write me checks,” Johnson recalls, laughing. “That’s not how it works.”

Copeland advised Johnson to get a building for the shelter space so she would have something to show people during her fundraising efforts. The stars began to align for Johnson when she found the perfect space, a commercial building in Round Rock with the welcoming appearance of a house.

In a meeting with the building’s landlord, Randell Casey, Johnson remembers bemusedly telling him her concerns.

“The first thing is there’s no showers for the kids,” she had said. “The other thing is, well, I don’t have any money.”

Casey, the CEO of local security service CyberDefenses Inc., offered her a special deferred-rent plan. Doors continued to open for Johnson when John King Construction covered the cost of the building’s renovation, and Austin’s Couch Potatoes donated furniture for the facility.

In a final, nerve-racking effort, Johnson needed to raise $75,000 to cover three months of operational costs, required by the state for approval of the shelter’s opening. Johnson received just enough funds in donations from friends and strangers to move forward.

“I’ve always had a pretty good outlook on life, despite my childhood,” Johnson says, her eyes watery with tears. “I knew there were good people out there. I just hadn’t met any of them. I had never had such overwhelming love and support. It’s literally healed my heart of every abuse that I’ve ever suffered.”

Her Home

Central Texas Table of Grace has now been open for three years. The emergency shelter is intended to provide a transitional home for displaced kids ages 6 through 17 for as long as 90 days. Because of a shortage of crucial housing for foster children in Texas, Johnson says the kids often stay much longer.

“I have not met a single one that I don’t just love with all my heart,” Johnson gushes. “They all have value. They didn’t ask for any of this to happen to them, and any damage that is caused by what has happened to them is truly not their fault. We’ve just got to help fix it.”

When opening Central Texas Table of Grace, it was especially important for Johnson to accept both boys and girls so brothers and sisters could stay together.

“That was confirmed literally two weeks after I opened, when I got my first sibling group of three,” Johnson recalls. The siblings lived at Central Texas Table of Grace for two months while a family member got approved as a licensed foster parent. “They were only together because they were with me. They got to stay together in the most traumatic experience of their entire life, and I think that made a huge difference on the effect the trauma had on them.”

Johnson is also passionate about helping teenagers, who can have an especially difficult time getting placed into foster homes.

Johnson’s bright, clean shelter houses as many as 13 children at a time. Outside of school, the kids enjoy frequent trips to Austin’s Park n’ Pizza, outdoor activities like hiking and swimming, as well as an annual outing to Six Flags Fiesta Texas. After trying it one year, Johnson says she will always get the kids Flash Passes that allow them to skip the lengthy queues for rides.

“When I watched them walk to the front of the line with their heads held high, you could tell that they felt so special,” Johnson says. “I remember thinking, ‘This is probably the first time they’ve ever felt like they were first in line for anything.’ ”

Her Story

With her frequent public-speaking gigs and fundraising efforts, Johnson knows her strength is in her story. She candidly shares about the times she almost gave up along the way to opening the shelter.

“It took me a long time to learn that vulnerability fosters connection,” Johnson says. “If you can be open with someone, they’ll open to you. If you’re not closed off, other people won’t be closed off.”

Johnson often tears up when speaking about her love and concerns for the children at Central Texas Table of Grace. She encourages them to use their own stories to build connections with others, and to be open about their status as foster children.

“If you can begin to not be ashamed of your story, you can use that to your advantage,” she says. “The more that you tell your story and people tell you their story back, it’s a connection and it’s healing.”

In recalling her journey, Johnson sees Central Texas Table of Grace’s path to opening as a series of miracles rooted in her Christian faith. Last year, the shelter’s reception of a True Inspiration Award from the Chick-Fil-A Foundation fit right into Johnson’s miraculous narrative.

At the award ceremony, the company surprised Johnson by bringing Hansen, her former group-home therapist, onstage. The two hadn’t seen each other since Johnson was a teen in foster care.

“My entire life has come full circle,” Johnson says of the experience. “If this one man never entered my life, it would be very different, and not in a good way.”

Her Daily Inspiration

As the CEO of Central Texas Table of Grace, Johnson shares her nonprofit’s message with multiple groups every week, as well as on grant applications to fund the shelter’s efforts.

Johnson balances her administrative duties with her goal of obtaining a college degree. She’s currently finishing up a degree online in public administration.

“I can’t tell my kids how important education is and then tell them that I never went to college a day in my life,” Johnson says. “I want to show them that the choice is yours.”

In the mix of paperwork, homework and hiring employees, Johnson found herself so bogged down in tasks outside the shelter that she hadn’t visited Central Texas Table of Grace in weeks. She quickly identified the problem and put herself on the schedule to work every Friday night.

“It reminds me every week that this is why I’m doing it,” she says. “Those kids matter so much. They are our future. There’s a lot of foster kids out there. We’ve got to raise them up.”

Johnson hopes to one day open a supervised living facility to continue supporting individuals who have aged out of the foster system, many of whom Johnson says unfortunately experience “failure to launch.” Supported by Central Texas Table of Grace’s online crowdfunding community, Johnson recently helped fulfill a large Amazon wish list of baby supplies for one of the shelter’s former residents.

Johnson keeps in contact with many of the more than 200 kids who have lived at Central Texas Table of Grace. In remembering her own childhood feelings of abandonment when former foster moms wouldn’t stay in touch, she struggles a lot with the impossibility of keeping up with every single child. Overall, she wants to think big to make sure every foster child feels individually supported.

“A lot of my foster moms have now told me, ‘I knew you were going somewhere,’ ” Johnson says. “I’ve discovered all of these things that I never knew were being thought about me. I need to make sure that these kids know what I think about them, which is that they’re all so special and they all have something to make it. If I do anything to change their lives in a positive way, then I’ve done what I needed to do.”

Stacy Johnson’s Five Favorite Resourceful Reads 

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens by Sean Covey

“This is the book that was given to me by Russ Hansen, my group-home therapist. It absolutely changed my life. I recommend this book to anyone with a teenager. Read it with them!”

Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill

“This book was written in 1937, but it is incredible how relevant his teachings are to this day. It really drives home the fact that our thoughts control our actions. Garbage in, garbage out.”

The Art of Thinking by Bob Proctor and Sandra Gallagher

“I am very fascinated with how the human brain works. Simply controlling your mindset is a skill you can fine-tune to bring amazing results to your life.”

Relentless by Tim S. Grover

“Talk about a motivator. This book was amazing, a reminder that we can always be better. I was on fire after reading this recently. When I was done with it, I started it over!”

Crushing Mediocrity by René Banglesdorf and Lisa Copeland

“I am lucky enough to know Lisa and René personally. I learned all of these principles firsthand from Lisa herself, but I can always go back to the book for a quick shot in the arm.”

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