For more than 15 years, Charles ‘CJ’ Johnson has unofficially fostered homeless kids from North Dallas High School. He’s made his house their home and created a family for students who need one.
Typically, an economics class meets in Room 110 of North Dallas High School.
But on Fridays after school, finance takes a vacation. It’s time for the Action Team to meet.
Members don’t talk profits and losses, but public service. Charles Johnson – he goes by ‘CJ’ – created the school club 11 years ago, when he worked at the school. On this day, he’s the volunteer leader of this session.
“So how many jobs have we gotten done?” he asks the group. “Are we still serving our community?”
CJ is a proud North Dallas Bulldog, class of ’88. He left a prison security job 18 years ago to become a monitor at North Dallas High. He also became a coach for the wrestling team. He wanted to help his old neighborhood and school.
“Our community is in need for volunteers,” he said. “We also appreciate our school, and we’re proud of our school. Some families needed help and everything like that, and I couldn’t do it by myself. So I needed other people to volunteer.”
CJ’s done more than volunteer. He also helped launch the school’s African-American and Latin-American culture clubs.
‘CJ Is Everything’
North Dallas High has a weekly drop-in center for homeless kids to stop by before school. The center offers students food, mentors, information about health insurance and resources about shelters.
Inside the center, Rafael Rodriguez, the school’s community liaison, talks about Johnson’s impact.
“CJ, when he started to work here, he lived with just him and his mom,” Rodriguez explains. “So he had a couple extra bedrooms available and I think at that time, it was probably 15 or 16 years ago, we had one young man and he needed a place to sleep and CJ provided a roof over his head.”
CJ hated seeing that boy in a homeless shelter living with adults.
“Because you have other people dealing with mental problems, just got out of prison and also staying there,” CJ says. “My first kid experienced that really bad where all his stuff was stolen, and also he came here with lice. I told him to get his stuff and let’s get out of here.”
That was more than three dozen students ago. He’s offered these kids a room, when the alternative was the street, a shelter or shattered household.
He calls the kids his sons, although he has no biological children.
“I just tell them … ‘I got a lot of rules and regulations,’” CJ says. “If you want to come, and just grow up in the house and everything like that, you go to the same school. … You just come here. We live here. You graduate. That’s what our focus is going to be.”
Angel Rivera, who’s 21, started living with CJ in 2009, when he was an angry student at North Dallas High — and homeless.
“CJ is everything in the world to me,” Rivera says. “All of his other kids … are like brothers to me.”
Rivera says he was hard-headed, crazy, and crossed the legal line. His mom kicked him out – three times. CJ helped him simmer down.
“My father, I don’t know him at all, never met him,” Rivera says. “Then my mother, she lives not too far from here, but me and her don’t always get along.”
Rivera needed a male role model, CJ says.
“Just to hang around with a guy that could actually teach him things besides being angry,” CJ says.
Rivera grew up. He chilled out. He took a new path.
Thankful for the Support
North Dallas High has more than its share of kids like him.
About 15 percent of the students are homeless – the most of any high school in the Dallas Independent School District. North Dallas High is surrounded by shelters, public housing — and it’s also nestled near new apartments and trendy stores.
It’s not the neighborhood CJ grew up in with his aunt and mother.
“They raised us right,” he says. “We had other families that stayed with us. So we always took care of our family and other people’s families. … I remember growing up like that. So we have always been growing up with other people staying with us during their heartaches.”
CJ now shares some of that heartache. He and his sister now care for their mother from a distance.
And, without certification, he had to stop coaching at North Dallas High. He also changed jobs. Today, he works security for Baylor Medical Center but still raises the kids he calls his sons.
This year, his focus has been on Desmond Davis, a student he’s taken in. Dez, a drum major, wrestler and track runner, is a student at North Dallas High. He just graduated.
Earlier this spring, on a school day, with the sun barely up and breakfast done, CJ was in the kitchen, mapping out the day with Dez.
“I have the Action Team meeting,” CJ tells Dez. “So I know you probably have band practice. Are you meeting with your coaches or anything?”
After so many years of essentially being a foster father, CJ has never done it formally. He doesn’t like the stereotype of a foster parent in it for the money
“I don’t get paid for doing this,” he says. “I use my own salary.”
But he adds that many people support him. And he gives thanks to a few neighborhood churches that have supported his kids — and others at the school.
They help keep CJ grounded. Kind of what he’s done for students at North Dallas High for nearly two decades.
Video: Meet Desmond Davis
Desmond Davis is one of those 18-year-olds that schools like to brag about: He’s a runner, wrestler and drum major. He’s graduating from North Dallas High School, and he’s heading to college at Oklahoma State University in the fall. Desmond just happens to be homeless.
Homeless Student Population Climbing Across Texas And U.S.
Coming Up In Our Series
North Dallas High School has a large homeless student population. Check back next week for the final chapter of KERA’s American Graduate: Homeless In High School.