Heidi McNiff Johnson
When Heidi McNiff Johnson received a phone call in the middle of the night on November 9th, 2002 that her mother had died in a car accident she transcended her grief by finding ways to give back to families in crisis.
“First you realize how precious life is when something like that happens,” she said. “It changes everything…and it puts a filter on your life of what matters. And for me, service really healed me ,it healed my grief, and gave me an opportunity to find my purpose.”
“I was an adult child watching my dad in a coma, my mother gone,” recalled Heidi, “In those moments…you just need to believe that faith is going to get you through.”
For Heidi, that meant establishing the Children’s Hospital Spiritual Care Guild with a group of friends, a non-profit that provides chaplains 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to the 150,000 families that come to Children’s Hospital each year.
“I realized so many families didn’t have faith, and didn’t have someone for them in a time of crisis, and we were blessed that we did in our situation,” Heidi said. “I am so grateful I was able to give back to the families at CHLA.”
After starting Spiritual Care Guild, Heidi created a blog, Charity Matters, to give leaders of the non-profit world a voice. “There are 1.7 million nonprofits in the United States and there are 30,000 in Los Angeles,” Heidi said. “I thought, who are these people? You don’t just wake up and start a nonprofit. So I started Charity Matters, to hear and share nonprofit founders stories.”
Married to her high school sweetheart, Ron, and the mother of three sons (Hunter 22, Henry 20 and Ford 16) Heidi became the Executive Director of The Association of Catholic Student Councils (TACSC), a Catholic leadership organization whose mission is to develop moral leaders who positively impact our world, in 2013.
“What drew me to TACSC is the ability to plant the seed of compassion in our children, teaching children how to lead, how to communicate, to be lifelong mentors – and, more importantly, that you can’t lead unless you serve,” Heidi said.
TACSC, which will serve almost 3,000 students this year, currently works with 122 Catholic elementary schools, and works with 31 Catholic high schools in the diocese of Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego and Phoenix.
“It’s a peer-to-peer leadership organization, a little bit like a waterfall,” Heidi explained.
“Our college kids teach our high school students leadership skills; and our high school kids teach the middle school students. So it trickles down and keeps going in a circle…and over 17,000 leaders later, here we are.”
Heidi believes her passion for philanthropy initially sparked when she started kindergarten at Mayfield Junior School. A “Mayfield lifer,” she graduated from Mayfield Senior School in 1984, and has served on the school’s board of directors as a trustee and been honored with the Cornelian Award for service.
“When your family models actions not words, service is in your DNA,” she said. “Mayfield’s all about service, it’s about action and caring for others. That’s just what we do. It happens to everybody who’s involved with Mayfield. It’s not unique to me. It’s unique to every Mayfield alumni.”
Angela Howell, Director of Development at Mayfield Senior School, said Heidi “epitomizes” the Mayfield motto: actions not words.
“Her real story is one of personal transformation,” Angela said. “She never let personal struggles get in the way of her goals, even when things changed in her life. Her example has been one of really a transformation, which is a core of our faith – taking sorrow and loss and transforming it into new life.”
Much like spreading the Gospel message, Heidi spreads the message that our actions make a difference in the world through Charity Matters, Angela added. “Heidi is one person of Christian action, taking her faith life and putting it out in the real world, and making sure that others have a chance to experience the faith that has been such an important part of her own personal experience, as well as her family and community,” Angela said.
In other endeavors, Heidi is currently on the board of Christ Child Society of Pasadena, Project Giving Kids, a nonprofit that teaches children philanthropy, TCU’s Chancellors board, The Spiritual Care Advisory Board at CHLA and has served as Co-Chair of the Board of Directors for Verbum Dei High School for the past five years.
“The Verb is Catholic boys school in Watts, where 100 percent of our boys go to college, but they all grew up in poverty,” Heidi said. Just like TACSC, they are modeled who they can and will be, however with The Verb the modeling happens through the boys work study program.” Heidi explained. “It’s not giving someone a fish – it’s giving them a pole.”
Looking back on her life so far, “I really just think that one thing leads to the next, I’ve just been blessed that these incredible opportunities to serve have been presented to me in my life, and they seem to always be in the right place at the right time – I’m just happy to be able to do what I can.”