Into Poverty’s Grip

Jacob Johnson, right, and his cousin, Ryan Beard play video games before dinner at the Johnson family home in October 2016. At that time, the family lived in Ocala National Forest while John Johnson, Jacob’s father, awaited a heart transplant.

John and Jenny Johnson always had a hardscrabble life in Ocala National Forest, one of Florida’s deep pockets of rural poverty a half hour north of The Villages.

It’s believed that 45,000 people live in abject rural poverty within the forest’s borders. Here, 22% of families like the Johnsons live below the poverty line, compared to 15.5% statewide.

The world of razor-thin margins makes it almost impossible to dig out — any new expense from a health issue or broken car can doom the financial prospects of an entire generation.

For the Johnsons — and their third-generation Forest children — things began to spin out of control when John, now 42, got sick several years ago.

A bout with flu and pneumonia left his heart so damaged that the father of four, with no savings and no insurance, would need a transplant to survive.

“Our life turned upside down,” said Jenny, now 37. The couple, who met two decades ago working at a Burger King, were already struggling to keep their van from breaking down again, to find gas money.

“We were poor,” she acknowledged. “We counted every penny even though we both worked. John was a day laborer and I worked at Wendy’s until I was able to get at job at the Marion County Tax Collector’s Office. We were getting by, but we didn’t have insurance.”

The Daily Sun has followed the family for three years as they teetered on the edge — moving into a relative’s crowded home for temporary housing, struggling to pay bills and worrying about how they could afford to keep John alive.

By 2016, the 6-foot tall man was down to 135 pounds and barely moving. There was recurring pneumonia, kidney failure, a mini-stroke and gastrointestinal bleeding — and then his heart stopped working altogether.

“We found out that he had to have a transplant and his doctor was positive,” Jenny said. “Then one of the other staff doctors came in and started talking with us. He told us that John wasn’t a good candidate; the odds of him surviving were not good — basically indicating we should give up.”

She was devastated, and then furious.

“I went home and was on the bed crying, and angry, mainly angry, and I just felt these hands gently placed on my shoulders, comforting me. I didn’t hear God speak to me, but I felt him right there with me. Then I knew everything was going to be OK, not easy, but we would be fine; I just had to keep my faith.”

A few months later, a battery-powered pump was keeping John alive while the family prayed for a transplant miracle. ​Bedridden most days, John could do little more than just read to his sons Dimitri, now 17; Jacob, now 14; and the twins Daniel and Jonathan, now 7.

“Nothing in life can prepare you for this,” he said. “Every day is a journey and a gift. I get to enjoy this time with my family that I never thought I’d have. You appreciate each day, and even the little things are important.”

Desperation, Prayer

And Then A Miracle

Last May, the couple got the call they’d been praying for and rushed to UF Health Shands Hospital. But the transplant wasn’t viable.

The next call came June 21, and again the couple rushed to Gainesville. John worried that it would be another false alarm, but after 11.5 hours in surgery, he had a new heart.

“We realize how fortunate we were,” Jenny said. “And we are grateful each day for the donor.”

The biggest boost, Jenny said, came from her pastor, David Houck, of Salt Life Church.

“He was at the hospital praying for John,” Jenny said. “I remember him coming in one day and showing John his phone, ‘Look at this, these are the people all over the world praying for you. We started a prayer chain.’ He was our emotional and spiritual support.”

Houck’s ministry is driven by his own experience as a child in rural poverty in the Forest. Today, he’s married with 10 children (several of whom he adopted out of the Forest) and is the founder of The Help Agency Inc., a not-for-profit he started in 1996 with a small amount of food bought on a $25 Winn-Dixie gift card.

“There would be days when I just wanted to give up, but Jenny wouldn’t let me,” John said. “Neither would Pastor Dave. They were always praying and caring for us. It really made a difference.”

After the surgery, the family moved back in with Jenny’s mother.

Space was cramped as Jenny and John shared a small room and the boys slept in the living room. They walked the same dirt road each day for the school bus that Jenny walked as a child.

Jenny remembers how people helped when she was down to her last $20 with nothing left to sell or pawn, how much a gas card from a friend or the staff at Shands would mean.

It was staff members there who helped the couple navigate the Medicaid maze.

“I applied and was denied, but they gave me contacts, wrote letters for us, and helped us get the disability,” Jenny said. “John couldn’t get the heart pump and then the transplant without this approval.”

Time For Healing, Hope

And New Beginnings

Six months after his surgery, John was able to spend a balmy December day at Sandhill Park in Ocklawaha, watching their sons and nephews on the playground.

His weight was up, and his stamina was returning.

“The kids and Jenny are why I’m here,” John said. “They were what kept me going. I couldn’t give up. They are my life.”

The Johnsons were ready to start dreaming again.

The family scraped enough together from a tax return to buy a house in Belleview, which was furnished with the help of Pay it Forward Outreach, a faith-based ministry.

They moved into their new home in May, just before the one-year anniversary of John’s heart transplant.

“God’s been real good to us,” Jenny said. “We got a new heart and a new home all in one year.”

Now they’re trying to make their dream work.

The doctors say there’s too many environmental hazards for John to return to work, Jenny said. So the challenges continue, and every week seems to bring a new problem.

 “The kids love having their own place and I am trying to love it too,” she said. But finances are still a huge challenge — she got a small raise, but that triggered a government cut to their food stamps.

But she says she’ll figure it out.

“God didn’t bring us here to fail,” she said. “He brought us to flourish.”

This month, the family marked another milestone: The first day of school for one of the few families to escape the Forest’s grip.

On the morning of Aug. 12, John and Jenny, who graduated high school before entering the work field, are now about to see their eldest son start his senior year. They sipped coffee as they made sure everything was ready. Dimitri, who has enlisted with the Army and will ship to basic training in June 2020, helped sort school supplies for the younger boys.

They were missing a few items for the twins, and Jenny said she would pick them up after she got paid Friday.

The sky was still a dark blue as everyone prepared to leave about 6:30 a.m. John drove Dimitri and the twins back to the Forest to continue school there, but Jacob walked down the street catch a bus. He wanted to complete a fresh start as he began high school.

After the school drop, John would need to run Jenny to work. He’d make the drive again later that day to pick everyone up.

But, before they left, Jenny made sure to get her traditional first day of school picture. The boys all sat at the dining room table, their arms around each other, as Jenny snapped a picture of them in their new home.