SPRINGFIELD — Ronn Johnson, who spent the last four decades making a difference for children and families in the Springfield community, died on Saturday at age 63.
The date — Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday — was a significant one for the long-time president and CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services Inc., who not only led that organization over the past decade but modeled much his of work around King’s example of service.
“I do what I do because I have a passion for making a difference for people. It’s that simple,” Johnson told BusinessWest in 2020, when he was named a Difference Maker by this publication. And I’ve been fortunate enough where I’ve been able to make a career around doing that. So I feel I’m doubly blessed to have made a good life for myself, but in the context of being a professional helper.”
After graduating from WNEC, he was recruited to the W.W. Johnson Life Center, an organization that dealt in mental-health issues, and earned a master’s degree in counseling psychology from Cambridge College. His next stop was the Dunbar Community Center, where he was involved in grant writing in an effort to meet the needs of an “underfunded community,” as he called it.
After that, he served as vice president of Child and Family Services at the Center for Human Development (CHD), where he worked for 13 years. Gang violence was on the rise during the early part of the 1990s, and it was creeping into local schools, so he created a CHD program called the Citywide Violence Prevention Task Force, among many other initiatives.
Johnson then worked for six years as director of Community Responsibility at MassMutual, until the economic downturn in 2009 forced cutbacks at many companies, and he was laid off, after which he launched a consulting firm, RDJ Associates. One of his clients was MLK Family Services, which approached him, during the summer of 2012, with an offer to take over leadership of the venerable but financially struggling agency.
When he came on board, the first goal was simply to make payroll, but eventually he righted the ship — with the help of a business community that saw the organization’s value and quietly helped raise a half-million dollars.
“It was stressful, but I was committed. And I had a committed board of directors who hung in there and facilitated the change that needed to happen,” he said. “We regained credibility with funders. That was big.”
At MassMutual, he told BusinessWest, he learned the value of measurable results, and he was able to demonstrate that the MLK Family Services programs — from helping people access healthier food to a College Readiness Academy that gives students tutorial help while bringing them to college campuses to raise their educational aspirations — do make a difference.
But no effort has been more personal to Johnson than the Brianna Fund, named for his daughter, who was born into the world with multiple broken bones from the brittle-bone condition known as osteogenesis imperfecta. Over the years, she would fracture dozens more. The family decided they needed an accessible van to keep Brianna in her wheelchair while moving from place to place, so they started a fundraiser.
“The community got behind us so significantly that we over-fundraised by about $30,000,” he recalled last year. “That was a message from God. I said all along that I didn’t want to do this if we’re not in it for the long haul. This needed to be ongoing, in perpetuity, for children in our community.”
Twenty-two years later, the Brianna Fund has raised more than $750,000 and helped the families of more than 50 children purchase a vehicle, renovate a home, widen hallways, install ramps, secure a service dog, and meet many other needs.
The COVID-19 pandemic presented a unique challenges to providers of community services, who had to find new ways of delivering them. MLK Family Services restructured itself from being an after-school resource to being a remote-learning center, and also expanded its emergency-food program, serving up to 400 people weekly.
Even so, pantry volunteers weren’t seeing some of the faces they expected to see — mainly older people — and learned these regulars were staying at home because of fears for their health. So Johnson talked to community partners, in particular Baystate Health, which helped procure a cargo van to deliver food to elderly, sick, and shut-in individuals in their homes.
“I do believe that God has a plan for every one of us,” Johnson told BusinessWest. “I’m a very faith-driven person. I’ve been blessed to be in places where people see my interests and read my heart, and where I’m able to make some things happen.”