By Dale Hemmila
Melinda Johnson knows exactly what it feels like to be a client walking through the doors of the Blue Water Community Action Agency (BWCAA).
She knows because, years ago, when she was a young mother, she was a client.
Her introduction to the wide range of helping-services that is offered by BWCAA gives Johnson a special affinity for the low-income clients the agency serves.
Now, as BWCAA’s executive director, she oversees a $6.5 million annual budget and the 100 employees who provide programs that help low-income individuals and families become self-sufficient.
Her success in managing this wide-ranging nonprofit organization, and her dedication to the Blue Water Area’s limited-income community, has earned her recognition as the Blue Water Woman Nonprofit Executive of the Year.
A Flint native with a master’s degree from Central Michigan University, Johnson took advantage of the BWCAA’s childhood education program by enrolling her son and daughter in Head Start more than 30 years ago, before she worked at the agency.
Fast forward to 2019, and Head Start remains a key part of the BWCAA’s mission and her daily work life, as she oversees that program directly, maintaining the title of children services director. Head Start comprises approximately 75 percent of the agency’s work.
The time she gets to work directly with clients, “feeds my soul,” while the rest of her responsibilities provide additional satisfaction from knowing she is helping families in need.
“I feel like every day I’m doing what I am supposed to be doing,” she said. “Even if I’m not working directly with people on the fringes of society, I am making sure the work gets done.”
Along with children’s services, BWCAA offers assistance with health and nutrition, home construction and repairs, financial consulting, emergency assistance services, and more.
“We’re kind of all over,” Johnson explained. “We try to be flexible to meet the needs of the community. The only thing that determines whether we can help you is the income level set by the federal government.”
While managing a large community service agency is satisfying in a general way, Johnson is further inspired by the success stories of individuals who have interacted with BWCAA.
“We have had people who started businesses, some have gone back to college, even just making friends so they don’t feel so socially isolated,” she explained. Johnson cited one woman the agency had worked with for more than five years “with one crisis after another.” Eventually the woman showed up one day to deliver the news that she was getting her life on track.
“She looked wonderful, and that was wonderful news, but it took five to six years to get her to that point. I went home and tap danced that night,” Johnson said with a smile.
Johnson is quick to acknowledge the people that she works with who likely have success stories of their own to tell.
“I have a great staff,” she said. “They are outstanding. They have kindness and compassion.”
The staff and programs will be on the move soon. The agency has purchased the former Baker College campus and will leave their cramped quarters above the Knowlton Ice Musuem in downtown Port Huron.
The move was part of Johnson’s vision for the future and will provide more than 90,000 square feet to allow the agency to consolidate programs that are currently located in churches and schools throughout the area.
“We have outgrown our building,” Johnson explained. “(Soon) we will have all this space so we can grow and I am very excited about that.”
With another decade or so to continue her career, she has also targeted settling the $2 million price tag for the new space as a long term goal.
“I want that to be paid off by my retirement,” she said. “I want that to be my legacy.”
Well, that, and the uncounted stories of clients her agency has helped.