Rewarding ministry: Susan Johnston to retire from Family Connection after 43 years

Published 5:42 pm Tuesday, December 12, 2023

By NOAH WORTHAM | Staff Writer

A young Susan Johnston interned at her local nonprofit in Shelby County in order to make a difference and aid in comforting homeless young people.

“I stayed on the weekends with the homeless young people,” she said. “I stayed in the shelters and spent the night from Friday night until Sunday evening. We had house parents back then, so I was the relief house parent for those kids and I was just a kid myself.”

Now, roughly 43 years later, Johnston is retiring after dedicating her life to improving the lives of countless Shelby County youths.

“Once I got involved with it, there was no turning back,” she said. “It was my ministry, I love those young people.”

Johnston is currently enjoying her final days serving as the executive director of the local nonprofit Family Connection before fully retiring on Tuesday, Jan. 2.

“I’m looking forward to it and spending time with my family,” she said. “I have four grandchildren and another on the way, so I’m looking forward to time with them.”

Family Connection’s Board of Directors recently gathered together for a retirement celebration on Dec. 4 to honor Johnston for all of her years of service. Johnston was presented with a clock and a retirement gift and County Manager Chad Scroggins informed her that the county had passed a resolution in her honor.

“It was great, it’s so sweet when people have such kind words to say to you and your years of service and what you meant to them,” Johnston said. “Not only from a professional level, but also as friends—people I’ve known for a long time. We have board directors involved with the agency for many, many years and I know them, I know their spouse (and) I know their children. It’s more than a board director(and) employee relationship, it’s a friendship.”

During her time with Family Connection, perhaps Johnston’s most important role has been her time serving as executive director.

“I’m in charge of Family Connection,” she said. “As one of my board directors said years ago, ‘You’re the heartbeat of Family Connection.’ I’ve taken that seriously of making it a vital organization in the community.”

Johnston discussed the importance of Family Connection and the work it does for the local community.

“Our mission says it all I think, we’ve done a great job honing in on our mission— it’s to strengthen our families and communities by providing shelter, counseling and safety for young people in crisis,” Johnston said.

Family Connections offers two shelters for homeless young people as well as counseling support, a counseling school program and has designated 46 sites in the community as safe places for homeless young people in crisis.

“At our shelters, our doors have always been open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for any young person ages 12-17 that was in a crisis situation, they could access our shelter,” she said. “They (can) access our shelter and we are always available they can come in and get the help and support that they need—safety and a safe place to be while we help them work through their difficulties.”

Having spent 43 years with Family Connection, Johnston said she found the profession to be a rewarding experience.

“It’s been my ministry, from the first time I ever got there,” she said.

Johnston first started as an intern at the nonprofit back when it was known as the Shelby Youth Attention Lodge.

“I just fell in love with being a resource (to) those young people and helping them, mentoring them,” she said.

Johnston then later transitioned into a counselor role after getting married in 1982. She continued to work her way through various roles before finally being named executive director in 1987.

“I’ve always loved it,” she said. “It’s been a ministry, it’s been my calling and God has given me the opportunity to do this and I’ve loved it and I still love it. There’s a season in your life when you realize that it’s time for someone else to take this ministry on and lead this organization.”

Johnston said she feels like she is leaving Family Connection in great shape.

“We’re debt free, we have great staff,  we have great facilities, we have many, many community people that support us,” she said. “I feel great about the future of Family Connection. Now, will Family Connection look tomorrow like it looks today? Maybe not, but I hope that it is better. I see that as a good thing. The new people coming in, they’ll have different ideas and different leadership styles and those kinds of things.”

Johnston expressed her gratitude for all of the people who have helped her along the way and specifically recognized Phil Cain.

“Phil has worked with me for 37 years,” she said. “He’s been my right hand person and he’s been a great partner in our work together.”

Now as Johnston closes this chapter of her life, she finds that things come full circle after being recognized in the very hall of fame she started.

“I call it the Family Connection Hall of Fame recognition,” she said. “I started recognizing board directors that had committed a lifetime of service to Family Connection. I wanted people, when they walk in the door of Family Connection, to see that face of that board director who made such a tremendous difference.”

After recognizing Cain as the latest member of the Family Connection Hall of Fame, the board then turned around and surprised Johnston by adding her as well.

“I wish the best for our future,” Johnston said. “Family Connection is a vital service to young people in our community and I pray that the community will still continue to support and rally behind new leadership and it’ll be good.”