Do What You Can

Johnson family


The cities of Menlo Park, Calif., and Dessie, Ethiopia, are separated by 10 time zones and 8,879 miles; an exhausting journey for even the most seasoned of travelers. And yet, when juxtaposed against the economic and cultural chasms that exist between the two communities, that daunting distance seems little more than a hop, skip and a jump.

As boots-on-the-ground proponents of HIV/AIDS care and education programs in Africa, Todd Johnson, his wife, Lil, and their two daughters, Sara and Emily, have made that lengthy and occasionally grueling trek five times in the last seven years. Along the way, they’ve found that their own perspectives on wealth, health and happiness have taken a similarly dramatic journey.

“When we first went to Africa in 2005, we realized that these were people who, by Western standards, had nothing. But they also had immense joy in their lives,” Todd recalls. “And when we came back home to Menlo Park, which is a very affluent community by anyone’s standards, we began to notice that a lot of the people who lived there seemed unhappy, despite having way more than enough. Fundamentally, Ethiopia shifted our focus of what was enough, but also in terms of how we live.”

The road to their epiphany started with a $100 challenge from the pastor of the family’s parish. After delivering a sermon on the “Parable of Talents” — a Biblical reading that addresses money, faithfulness and the relationship between the two — the pastor then asked the congregation if they would be interested in going on an adventure.

And so began a defining chapter in the Johnson family’s story: “He gave us a $100 bill and told us that it wasn’t ours. We had to do something with it for God, and we had to be willing to come back and tell a story,” Todd says.

A spirited discussion ensued about what the family would do with the money. Saddened by the devastating effects of the HIV virus on African populations, they decided to take the $100 and turn it into pennies, which became the foundational donation toward their goal of collecting and displaying 19 million pennies to show their community, their country and the world what it looks like to see the 19 million Africans who had died of AIDS at that time.

They were convinced that it would take only a few months to raise the remaining $18,900 needed to complete their display. Five years and eight million pennies later they ended their project … and the journey was more rewarding than they ever could’ve imagined.

“It was tougher than we ever would’ve anticipated, but there were so many amazing experiences along the way,” Todd says. “We were lucky enough to be able to visit Africa five times together and meet some truly inspiring people. We also put on a display at both the Democratic and Republican national conventions in 2008 where we had delegates and politicians make HIV/AIDS caregiver kits that were sent to Africa.

“We started out not really having any idea of what we were doing, but we knew we just wanted to try and make a difference.”

Oldest daughter Sara, who graduated from USD in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in political science and minors in psychology and peace and justice studies, has carried that mantra forward into her pursuit of a master’s degree in peace and justice studies from the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies. The indelible life experiences she garnered during the family’s visits to Africa have led to her interest in a career where she can help entrepreneurs in developing countries create businesses that sustain their communities — and dad couldn’t be more proud.

“I am very passionate about economic development and poverty alleviation,” says Todd, who, as a partner in Bay Area international law firm Jones Day, serves as a lawyer, counselor and advisor for businesses looking to maximize growth and efficiency through a minimal environmental footprint.

“We hadn’t heard much about USD prior to Sara transferring there as an undergraduate, but the more we learned, the more we liked, especially the work going on at the School of Peace Studies.”

Todd and Lil have had the opportunity to visit Alcalá Park several times over the last few years, and have become fast friends with outgoing School of Peace Studies Dean Father William Headley, whom Todd describes as “a man of peace,” willing to roll up his sleeves and take a hands-on approach to making the world a better place.

“We love Father Bill. When we heard that he was going to step down, we thought starting an endowed scholarship in his name would be a great way to honor his service as founding dean of the School of Peace Studies.”

The William Headley Endowed Scholarship in Peace and Justice Studies will support students from developing countries who, through education, research and collaboration, will build the toolkits they need to promote economic development and conflict resolution within their home nations.

For the Johnsons, helping provide financial support to those in need fits perfectly with the life principles they espouse, and they are hopeful others will join them in supporting the William Headley Endowed Scholarship.

“My wife and I have adopted a saying that we often use when people ask us what they can do to help: ‘Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can, it will be enough.’” — Mike Sauer

To contribute to the William Headley Endowed Scholarship, contact Director of Development Elisa Lurkis at, or call (619) 260-7913.

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