Journeyman: Drew Johnson embarks on new volunteer adventure -- 'Here a Year'
WORTHINGTON -- About two and a half years ago, Drew Johnson set out on a quest. It was a personal quest and yet a very public one that was documented in publications across the country. Called "48 by 48," Drew's goal was to volunteer in each of the 48 contiguous United States in 48 weeks.
When the Daily Globe last visited with Drew, he was a fourth of the way through his sojourn, having volunteered in 12 states in January 2010. Now, after a sabbatical from traveling, he's reflecting on what he accomplished in "48 by 48" while he prepares to embark on a new adventure, "Here a Year."
"I made my personal goals, and I think I was surprised by how much attention it picked up through a lot of local news places," Drew said. "Then the Huffington Post picked it up, and it just kind of trickled from there."
Among the news outlets that keyed in on Drew's story was Reader's Digest, and he was chosen as "Best Sojourner of the Year" for the magazine's May 2011 "Best Of" issue.
"It was quite hysterical," he said about the Reader's Digest experience. "At the time I was in South Dakota, staying with my sister in Sioux Falls. They flew out a photographer, and I had to line up about five or six volunteer spots over there. I got a call the night before, saying that because it was going to be in the May issue, they couldn't have anyone wearing long sleeves or any snow in the background of the photos. Luckily, the people I was working with were very accommodating. The guy took probably 2,000 pictures and told me that he'd send in about 40 pictures and I'd be lucky if one got in the magazine. The one they picked was at an animal sanctuary."
Hitting the road
For Drew, a 1997 graduate of Worthington High School and son of Dean and Barb Johnson of Worthington, "48 by 48" was the idea that evolved from some in-depth soul-searching. After earning a bachelor's degree in theology from Pensacola Christian College in Florida, he'd served as a pastor in southern Iowa for five years and then ran a graphics design business in Idaho. The idea of a road trip focused on volunteering came to him as he sought a way to combine his passions for travel, technology and serving others. Supporters were able to connect with his travels and mission through a website and blog.
While he never expected to make Reader's Digest, the publicity his trip received helped to put the spotlight on the many organizations across the country and the need for volunteerism. And that was part of the quest. He tried to make his volunteer experiences as varied as possible and discovered a few new talents along the way.
"In Massachusetts, there was a knitting group," he detailed about one opportunity. "This lady was at a bus stop and noticed some kids out shivering in the cold, and they didn't have scarves or hats. She thought, 'I know how to knit,' and now they have a nice little Monday meeting and had made over 4,500 pieces that they were able to donate back to the community. I didn't know how to knit, but said, 'If you don't mind teaching someone, I'll give it a try.'"
Drew began to knit a scarf that day and continued it on his travels. He has a photo of himself knitting at Acadia National Park in Maine.
One of the oddest requests he got was one that, after some serious contemplation, Drew declined.
"I put myself out there saying if anybody needs help, I'll help you," he related. "So before I got to Virginia, I got an email saying 'We want to use your ability to grab press.' Well, that was kind of a warning sign. 'What am I going to be doing?' The lady wrote back, "We've got this new McCruel campaign protesting against how they make Chicken McNuggets. We want to dress you up as a chicken, douse you in paint that looks like blood and have you run around the McDonald's here.'"
The woman was a member of PETA -- People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. After consulting with his panel of advisers, Drew decided the stunt didn't fit his mission.
"I had told people I wouldn't turn people away, but it felt kind of hypocritical," said Drew, who often took advantage of the Wi-fi services offered at McDonalds throughout his travels. "I wrote back and said, 'I don't know if this is going to be a good fit, but I'd still love to sit down with you guys and chat.' They invited me to PETA headquarters in Norfolk, Va., and I got to talk to one of the vice presidents. ... I have a lot more respect for what they do because I sat down and listened to them. I told him, 'I don't agree with 70 percent of the stuff you do, but I can't speak ill of what you're doing."
In comparison, most of the other charity requests Drew received were more mundane, and he often found himself working with animals or programs geared to the less fortunate.
"I really tried to mix it up," said Drew about where he tried to lend a helping hand. "Animals were always an easy thing if I was in a place and couldn't find anything else to do. Soup kitchens were that way, too. But I also manned a Christmas carousel in downtown Seattle, shoveled manure at horse ranches, helped at a teaching supply store where everything was donated to supplement low-income schools. With charity, if you know how to network, it's amazing what you are able to do."
For most of his journey, Drew lived on a shoestring and out of his car, camping when he was able and occasionally sleeping in his vehicle's trunk. He also received many invitations for sleeping accommodations and was touched by the moments of kindness he experienced along the way.
"People are so kind, so giving, and we're taught to be so distrustful," he said. "I ran into some amazing moments. I think I was camping in New Hampshire and hadn't had a shower for a long time. You had to pay for the campsite and also had to pay for a shower, and I had no change at all. I was as grouchy as can be, and I went back out to my car to dig under the seats for some change. When I went back inside, I had put my toiletries on top of the wall, and when I put my hand up there to grab them, there's a pile of quarters. It was just the 'ah-hah' moment. Those kind of things happened all over the place. The more you show kindness to others, the more it comes back around."
That isn't to say there weren't a few more disconcerting moments.
"I had a gun waved at me once, had an experience where I was driving through a wrong neighborhood, and a guy let me know I needed to move on," Drew recalled. "Another time I was working at a soup kitchen, and when I got there this guy said, 'I hope you're OK if your car isn't there when you get done.' Evidently it was a bad part of town. A fight broke out in the middle of the soup kitchen. Most places have rules that if that happens, you quit serving, but in Massachusetts, they would rather serve people and have fights break out than turn them away. When I got done, my car was still there, and it still had its hubcaps. That was probably the most uneasy I ever felt."
Traveling by himself provided Drew with plenty of time for personal reflection, although he's not sure he came to any major revelation during his quest.
"I always tell people, if you go on an adventure like that, go road tripping across the country to find yourself, don't do it. You get more lost," he said with a laugh. "I met a guy in Eugene, Ore., probably only four or five weeks out while we trying to save a mountain or something, who asked me, 'Why are you doing this? Have you ever heard the old phrase -- everywhere you go, there you are?' At first I said, 'Sure,' but then I finally said, 'You'd better fill me in,' and he said, 'It means you have to be comfortable with you, make sure you're not running away from something. You can escape circumstances or situations, but you can't escape yourself.'
"I don't think I was trying to run away from anything, but just trying to see what's out there and do what I love on a full-time basis.''
When "48 by 48" came to a close, Drew returned to Worthington, and he's been hanging out here for the past year and a half, spending quality time with family and working on a few projects.
"I've been part of the CAPP (Comprehensive Arts Planning Program), put on an April Fool's trivia night to raise money for TAC -- just been having some fun," said Drew, who also tackled a few website design projects while deciding on his next course of action. "It was just a refining process, talking with people, deciding what I want to do. I love introducing people to great ideas, great organizations, having a variety of things to do, blogging, taking pictures. I had a couple of different ideas, but they never stuck."
Until "Here a Year."
Drew decided that, instead of traveling to various states, he would focus his volunteering energies in just one. And he'd leave it up to his supporters to decide which state would be his home for a year.
The top contenders were Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, North Dakota and Pennsylvania. After a January bout of constant balloting that seemed to favor Iowa, Pennsylvania surprisingly emerged as the winner. Since he had some good volunteering experiences in the Keystone State, he eagerly embraced the selection.
"More people from Minnesota voted in this thing, but very few of them voted for Minnesota," noted Drew. "It was like they felt it was a crime to send me to Minnesota."
Drew's philosophy for his new quest is "Live. Discover. Connect: To be a part of the state's diverse cultures; to participate in and encourage others to enjoy the best the state has to offer; to promote great causes, people and organizations."
The responsibilities that Drew has defined for the year are: Live for one year in state chosen by audience; to embody the three verbs (Live, Discover, Connect); to bust the myth that "there's nothing to do around here!"; partner with the boards of tourism, chambers of commerce and charitable organizations; lead a community development project within the area of travel; creating content to promote the state and the "Here a Year" project. He also plans to videotape 20 or more web episodes during the year; provide weekly blog updates; build network through social media; and produce a yearly product.
"I'm going to take off on March 25," he detailed. "At first I'm going to be staying outside of Hanover, which is by Gettysburg, on a horse ranch. I'll do a little bit of the rural, then will probably move into an urban apartment in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia. I'll move to a couple of spots during the year. I even have a connection with the person who rescued the groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, and gave him to the city. They have visitation rights, so maybe I'll get to go behind the scenes."
Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers can be reached at 376-7327