“Fly along with me, I can’t quite make it alone.” Foo Fighters, Learn to Fly
Denise Johns is a fan of 90s grunge bands, a self-avowed superfan of the band Foo Fighters (having attended six concerts and counting,) and has been the counselor at Our Lady of Perpetual Help school for the past ten years. In that role she has flown along with countless families and students.
From a young age Denise knew that she wanted to help other people, describing it as, “I feel this is always who I was.” Her undergraduate degree is in criminal justice because, at the time, she felt becoming a police officer was the best opportunity to help others. However, as graduation neared, Denise realized “I was not meant for this.” Instead, she decided pursue counseling, becoming a copilot and flying along with those who were in most need of it.
Her first job was in a school setting which convinced Denise that she had no desire to become a teacher, but that she wanted to work with children. Following that, she worked with a number of community resource organizations as a foster care therapist and then helping parents who had lost their children through court actions to reconnect with them. In this latter position Denise gained some of the most valuable lessons that have influenced her own life. “These mothers were at their lowest but still loved their children so much, and I realized they loved their kids as much as I loved my own.”
After living in Cincinnati for some time, career changes drew Denise’s family to Grove City. They were looking at houses and attended a Mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Later that night, Denise dreamed of the parish and realized she was “meant to be here.” With the transfer of the former Our Lady school counselor, Denise accepted the position and started full-time the same day the Julie Freeman became the school’s principal.
Out of four days of the week Denise is officially employed by Southwest City Schools, but Julie Freeman has always ensured that a fifth day is funded by Our Lady’s school. This allows Denise to engage in the students’ sacramental life; she can attend all-school Masses, openly discuss spiritual concerns, and display religious symbols in her office.
One poignant example of this is when a student, Catholic or not, has experienced a personal loss Denise asks them if they would like to walk over to the church and light a candle in the nave. None of the students have turned down that offer. This is an opportunity for Denise to copilot and fly along with them, supporting them in their moments of grief, to offer a real and physical example of her dedication to them.
As the school counselor, Denise is particularly involved in the social and emotional health of the students at OLPH school. Her goal is for the entire faculty and staff to be cognizant of the students; checking in with them and helping them to work through “stuff.” Copiloting. An excellent example of this is “temperature checks” where faculty ask, “how are you feeling right now?” No doubt the ongoing pandemic is affecting all of us and the mental health issues of our children are only now beginning to become understood.
Given the response to the pandemic, Denise is concerned about the long-term effects on the kids’ mental health. As she explains, “We are just now seeing the impact and the upcoming [academic] year will show more of that impact.” Denise hopes there will be more research so “we’re just not throwing things up against the wall to see what sticks.”
Fortunately, there are numerous resources available now that were not even in existence a few years ago. In fact, Denise will soon be bringing in a team from Nationwide Children’s Hospital to address teenage suicide and screen the kids to determine their risk.
When I asked Denise what her greatest joy in her position at the school was, her answer was immediate. “Oh my gosh, the connections with the kids and the families. I love the families.” Particularly given the pandemic, some families at Our Lady are in more precarious positions while others are blessed with financial success. Regarding the latter, Denise explains, “I am so touched they just want to help” and regarding the former, she is so pleased to be a bridge to bring them resources to help. Denise pauses and then adds, “I feel like this is my family. I hope I can portray the message that we love each other.”
As a copilot and fellow flier of this crazy world, Denise wants to make sure that all of us know that none of us “have it all together.” She believes that all people are inherently good, something that is reinforced by “people knocking down my door to provide resources.” Denise appreciates being a bridge between those donating the resources and those needing them, “There is so much joy and appreciation.”
Outside of the school, Denise is clearly an aficionado of 90s grunge music and her husband Andy is a metalhead (my own oldest twin has also recently embraced that metalheadness as well… I realize that metalheadness is not really a word but wanted to coin it.) Once the pandemic responses have lifted, Denise cannot wait to attend in-person concerts, “I love going to concerts. I’m an introvert and have even gone to concerts alone.” 2020 stole her seventh Foo Fighters concert and a Rage Against the Machine concert she wanted to attend with Andy, but hopefully this year will be different.
Before the pandemic Denise’s favorite moment at the school was in the morning. All the kids were in the gymnasium “throwing around backpacks,” shouting, chasing each other around… having fun. And then Julie Freeman would announce it was time to begin morning prayers. “This hush would fall over the gym.”
Having spoken with Denise I recalled two things:
“It’s times like these you learn to live again. It’s times like these you give and give again.” Foo Fighters, Times Like These
“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth, And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;” John Gillespie Magee, High Flight
By Eric Brooks