By Sue Moore
“At South County Community Services, we don’t just give clients a phone number and tell them to try and get service for themselves,” says Drew Johnson, the new director replacing the retiring Danna Downing.
“We can be the go-between for people who need help. We can build strong relationships for our clients. The system is a lot more complex for so many people who have to find their way through.”
“Poverty is so complicated. There are lots of little things that we can help to fill the gaps with utility assistance, food shortage and mental health services,” Johnson says. “As emergency assistance coordinator for the last four years here, I’ve seen how the ever-changing system can be really difficult to navigate. In our rural area, the needs are a lot more complex.”
Besides emergency assistance, the agency houses county workers from the Department of Health and Human Services, WIC services, County Veteran services and Metro transportation services. They refer clients to Community Mental Health Services, which has changed its name to Integrated Services of Kalamazoo.
“Our agency is free of bureaucracy so we can try out new things because we are small. We like to have our hands in a lot of new things to try them out,” Johnson points out. “When Danna saw the need, she didn’t wait for the money to come to the agency. She went out and worked to get small grants to build relationships, especially for delivering services to seniors. She has built a foundation to deliver these services. Now we can hope to qualify to have a senior outreach worker join the staff, funded through the Area Agency on Aging via the recently passed senior millage in Kalamazoo County.”
For example, Johnson cites the initial work done by Diane Durian in reaching out to seniors in the five townships that SCCS serves – Prairie Ronde, Schoolcraft, Brady, Wakeshma and Pavilion. Previous to that, most of the seniors the agency served were centered in Vicksburg. “We found there was a huge unmet need, particularly for transportation in the out-county area. Our goal is to solidify what we have to offer while laying a new foundation with new staff we hope to have around for a long while,” Johnson says.
Johnson is a Kalamazoo native who grew up on the north side. His parents, Phil Johnson and Mary Baggerman, provided a caring family environment. Both parents are therapists at Western Michigan University’s Sindecuse Health Center. Young Johnson attended the Kalamazoo Area Math and Science Center and thought he wanted to be in engineering while attending the University of Michigan. There, he met his future wife, Ali, who was majoring in social work. They had similar friends and met when both were celebrating their 20th birthday on the same day. It turned out they were both born at Borgess Hospital on that day. They never met; Ali’s family moved to Detroit when she was a teenager. Now she’s back in Kalamazoo and is a supervisor at InterAct in Kalamazoo, which offers counseling services.
The young couple have three boys, Silas (4), Henry (2 ½) and Malcolm (5 months). Johnson started his career as a case manager for homeless youth at Catholic Charities Diocese of Kalamazoo. He followed that up with as a social worker at Pathways in Kalamazoo. He earned his Master’s degree from WMU in nonprofit administration while working at South County. It helped with his studies that Downing and the board in a cost-cutting move decided to extend the Monday through Thursday hours at the agency and close on Friday. “South County is the perfect place for me,” Johnson says. “The system is ever-changing and we can evolve with it and tweak it for the better. We can’t remake it from scratch but we can try out new things. It’s very important to have our staff know what they are doing and work well together over the long-term.
The person Johnson interviewed and hired to take his place as emergency assistance coordinator is Austin Wiggins, originally from Ogden, Utah, where he earned an undergraduate degree in history from Weber State. He is married to a native of Plainwell who is now a curator at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts. He has been a social worker at Pathways for eight years before taking the job at South County.
“I knew Austin from my time working at Pathways and admired him and thought he would stick around for a while here as he had in his previous position,” Johnson said. “He is really good with people who come in really stressed, frustrated, emotional and in a crisis situation. Folks feel comfortable talking to him about private issues. They are often in the worst position they have ever been in. Austin is very tactful and good at problem solving.”
Wiggins said he has had a good handle on Kalamazoo and is just learning the Vicksburg area, having been in the job for two months. He helps to connect people with resources, eviction notices and utility shutoffs. He works with Loaves & Fishes, stocks the food pantry orders, obtains fuel and clothing vouchers among his many assignments. “I enjoy helping people who have challenging circumstances,” he says.