When Onie Johns created her non-profit community center and restaurant called Caritas Village in 2006, she developed this mission statement to guide her work.
"To break down walls of hostility between the cultures, to build bridges of love and trust between the rich and those made poor and to provide a positive alternative to the street corners for the neighborhood children.”
Ten years later, Johns’ Caritas Village in Memphis’ Binghampton neighborhood has had plenty of success in pursuing that mission. So much so that Johns, 71, was honored with the Women’s Foundation Legends Award in 2010.
“I am amazed every day at what God has done with this place,” Johns said. “I thought it would work, but I don't think I ever thought it would work quite as well as it has.”
Johns was born in Ackerman, Mississippi where she attended Ackerman High School and graduated from University Hospital of Jackson.
Johns, who has always had a passion for helping people and wanting to better the community, never began to think about becoming a founder of a non-profit organization.
"I wanted to be a nurse, I always knew that. I wanted to go into the Peace Corps, but I never did that.”
She worked as a nurse between 1966 and 1975. In 1975, she began working as medical management in a physician's office while going to school. There was an opening in the front office, and she just never went back to nursing.
She eventually retired as a medical administrator in 2005.
Johns was married in 1966 when she was 20 years old to Billy Ray Johns who was six years older than her. He also worked for her father.
He was an electrical salesman, and the job moved them to Memphis, then back to Mississippi, and eventually settled in Germantown. They had two children, Christy and Jeff.
Throughout the marriage, she had been involved in volunteering for several social justice–type organizations. Johns volunteered in AIDS ministry, mentored pregnant teens, volunteered with hospice, did a lot of racial reconciliation work.
After 35 years, her marriage ended and she decided to join a 10-month formation class that she felt called to live in Christian community in an inner-city neighborhood.
"I had been going to church in Binghampton for 12 years. I spent a lot of time doing work here, but I'd always feel guilty about going back to Germantown to sleep at night," said Johns.
In 2000 Johns decided to move to the community of Binghampton to live near a Christian community.
" I thought she was crazy," said Kristy Johns, daughter, "but I was understanding and tried to be supportive."
She and two other church member decided to moved into an house in Binghampton in 2000, but I didn't pan out that way.
"Before we moved, one decided it was something he could not do," said Johns. "The other guy only stayed about a year, although he emotionally withdrew after just six months. So I lived alone in the house for three years, but I never felt fear — physically or emotionally."
The house was open to all. She had meals as a community there. There were children's activities, and the den was set up with computers and games. It wasn't unusual for her to come home from her job and find 10 to 12 children waiting on the porch to get into the house. She had night concerts on the lawn — anything to gather a crowd and build relationships.
In 2004, the building that holds Caritas Village was put on the market.
"I closed on the property in 2005, the same year I retired from my medical administration career. We started with a coffee shop and a cultural center, and now we're filled with programs and activities."
Caritas Village, which is located on 2509 Harvard Ave. in Memphis is catered to artist, musicians, a diverse crowd, great food, and also holds staff from the community.
"I only hire people from the community, I'd see 10 to 15 young men just hanging on the apartment steps across the street doing nothing, going nowhere," said Johns "I thought, We might not be able to do anything with those guys, but if we can catch them before they get to the apartment steps — if we can get a building and provide programs and learning opportunities, it would give them someplace to go and build skills at the same time."
Caritas Village, which has just celebrated its 10 year anniversary, continues to have many special programs throughout the year such as, after school programs, free medical clinics, yoga on Thursdays, aerobics on Friday, and once a month she hosts a feature artist to display their work on the walls.
"Everything that's here, somebody started,” said Johns. “I just open the doors every morning, and it all unfolds. It's indescribable what goes on here. Miracles take place all over, and I know I was destined to be here."
The name Onie- was her grandmother's name.
In college she earned money by- "Sewing. I made clothes for people in the dorm, cheerleading uniforms, a friend's wedding dress, tailoring jobs — but I don't sew at all anymore."
Your favorite television program? "The last time I watched TV was Sep. 11, 2001. I do own a TV, but it's in the den."
Your greatest extravagance is? artwork and stationery! I have drawers of stationery.