Meet Cheryl Johnson: ICU nurse turned Volunteer of the Year

Celebrating the unsung heroes among us during National Volunteer Month

At 458 Ponce de Leon Avenue sits an unassuming brick building on the campus of Grace United Methodist Church. Inside, on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings, humble heroes gather.

This is the home of Downtown Atlanta’s Women’s Community Kitchen, a steadfast source of hot meals for women and children in need. Founded in 1984 as a program of Action Ministries (and now part of HOPE Atlanta), the Community Kitchen not only provides some 20,000 meals per year. It’s evolved into a welcoming community for women to feel supported amid challenges like poverty, job loss, or housing insecurity. And it’s run almost entirely by volunteers like Cheryl Johnson.

A former ICU nurse, Johnson’s instinct to care for others runs deep. Upon relocating to Atlanta a few years ago, she jumped at the opportunity to volunteer at the Women’s Community Kitchen.

“There’s a certain population that I feel very passionate about and I feel very concerned about,” she said. “I feel like there’s so much to be done. Having food, medicine, and shelter is a basic right.”

Named Volunteer of the Year in 2019, Johnson works at the Women’s Community Kitchen for two or three days most weeks. She’s part of a small army of passionate volunteers who prepare and serve nearly 400 meals each week to food-insecure women, children, and seniors — some of whom are also experiencing homelessness.

“A lot of people that walk down the street in Atlanta don’t even see them,” she said. “For me they are part of my community.”

Because Women’s Community Kitchen staff and volunteers are tasked with creating menus from donated food items, it sometimes means getting a bit creative.

“The ladies that run the kitchen are able to make magic happen with food,” she said, giving kudos to Program Manager April Greenberg for ensuring that clients have nutritious options. “April works really hard on getting fresh vegetables and fruits.”

Before the pandemic, Johnson looked forward to visiting with her friends at the Community Kitchen each week, getting to know the clients as individuals and looking out for their wellbeing beyond the building’s walls. “I feel like I can’t do enough. I go home and I don’t sleep at night because I know the names and the faces of the people that aren’t sheltered,” she said.

But her many acts of kindness have made a difference in people’s lives — from clients with chronic health conditions like diabetes who benefit from her advocacy and thoughtful menu planning to the client she surprised with a new pair of sneakers.

“She had never owned a new pair of sneakers in her entire life,” she recounted. “If you could have seen her face as she walked across the courtyard at the Women’s Community Kitchen away from me and back to me, so carefully and so gingerly. She said ‘I could walk forever in these.’”

Things look a bit different amid COVID-19; currently, the Women’s Community Kitchen is only serving to-go meals. Still, Johnson and Greenberg’s commitment has not wavered.

“[April’s] people were hungry and she was going to make sure her people got fed,” Johnson said. “As soon as they said a couple volunteers could come back, for a while, it was me, April and the security guards getting meals together.”

Although a return to “normalcy” seems on the horizon, volunteers are still needed more than ever as the pandemic’s arrival and economic damage has pushed many families into food-insecure situations. “When Covid hit, we were in a really great spot. Programs were going well, and then everything shut down,” she said. “There is going to be a process while we reopen.”

While the Women’s Community Kitchen and other HOPE Atlanta hunger relief programs are taking precautions in our volunteer centers like mask-wearing and distancing, there are also plenty of ways to volunteer from home.

If you’re feeling inspired by Cheryl’s passion and dedication, we’d love for you to learn more about HOPE Atlanta’s programs and volunteer opportunities. Don’t have any spare time, but want to make an impact? The easiest way to do so is by making a gift.

Our vision is to end hunger and homelessness for every Georgian.