Growing up, C.J. Gardner-Johnson always had other kids roaming about his family home. They weren’t his siblings, but it never really felt out of the ordinary, just a part of life.
But there came a day when he realized what was going on. There was a girl in the house, and she was checked out mentally. Gardner-Johnson didn’t understand, so he asked his mother, Del Johnson, what was wrong.
“I asked my mom, ‘What did she do?’” Gardner-Johnson recalled. “And my mom was telling me what she was, what was going on.”
That young girl in Del Johnson’s home was a foster child, one of many Johnson took care of throughout Gardner-Johnson’s childhood. That was the day Gardner-Johnson understood what was happening around him, and that was the day he started seriously thinking about the importance of providing for those in need.
Fast forward to 2019. The now 22-year-old Gardner-Johnson is in the midst of a fine rookie season with the New Orleans Saints, and he taking advantage of his newfound status to further the mission he took on that day at home.
Earlier this year, Meghan Goldbeck-Chambers, the development and communications coordinator for Raintree Childrens Services, received a call from Saints Director of Community Affairs Elicia Broussard-Sheridan. She was told about a Saints player who had an interest in foster care, and wanted to learn more about the organization.
Raintree is a non-profit that has been providing services to at-risk children in the New Orleans area since 1926. The Raintree House specifically provides those services for adolescent girls between 11 and 18.
“(Broussard-Sheridan) said (Gardner-Johnson) wanted to take an interest and learn more about our agency and help support our girls,” Goldbeck-Chambers said. “That night he came over and visited with them and brought them pizza. It was really sweet.
“The girls just had a ball learning about him and his story. He just totally warmed up to them really quickly. For him to do this on his day off and donate his time to them, … he was like, ‘you guys are my crew, I care about you, I’m really interested in making sure you guys are okay.’ ”
Gardner-Johnson also reached out to Boys Town, another facility in New Orleans that works with at-risk children, to donate his time. Earlier this year, he provided tickets for a big group of foster children to attend a Saints game, and his mother was there to provide snacks and drinks.
A few weeks later, he organized a group to meet him out at Foot Locker, and he bought everyone there a new pair of shoes.
“People don’t take notice of kids like that,” Gardner-Johnson said. “I feel like by me bringing some type of awareness to them, there’s more people out there that need help than vets and homeless people. There’s kids out there that need homes and families.”
But his impact on the kids themselves goes beyond awareness and the fleeting happiness of a new pair of shoes, Goldbeck-Chambers said.
There have been a lot of people over the years who have contributed time and money to the organization, and that is always deeply appreciated. But Gardner-Johnson took it to a new level.
“He’s really encouraged them to set goals for themselves,” Goldbeck-Chambers said. “He had them write a list of things they want to do when they get older and how they’re going to do it. I really appreciated him, it wasn’t just, ‘Here’s a bunch of stuff.’ He wanted to give them incentives to think about their future and how they can set goals for themselves.”
Goldbeck-Chambers knows Gardner-Johnson and other professional athletes don’t have to do things like this with their time, and yet they still do. She sees the way he invests time and care into their situation as meaning more than a gift could.
She saw the way he came in with pizza and sat down with the girls like a regular person would, not some untouchable famous athlete. She saw the way he genuinely cared for the girls.
It’s not just about being there for the kids, Gardner-Johnson said, but being there with open arms. If his mom could bring kids into the family without her son realizing anything was out of the ordinary, he could do it the same way.
“These girls have been through some really tough situations, obviously,” Goldbeck-Chambers said. “For somebody to say, ‘You’re loved, I’ve got your back, I believe in you so you can believe in yourself,’ you can’t buy that. You really can’t.”
Still, Gardner-Johnson said he might have something cooked up for Christmas anyway.