If you live in the North End, more specifically around 6th and Thatcher, and you don't recognize Jeff Johnston or he hasn't yet lent you a proverbial cup of sugar, you're obviously new to the neighborhood. Johnston has been living in the area for the past 14 years and lends himself to the community every chance he gets. He was recently named the most valuable player in the North End by his fellow neighbors and the Neighborhood Watch for keeping a drunk driver who hit a parked car from leaving the scene, but is more notable as a local hero for his efforts working as a special needs aide in the Boise school district and as an assisted runner with a particular student over the past few years.
Fifteen years ago, Johnston began working with youth with special needs who were in the severe and profound rooms of junior highs and high schools in the Treasure Valley. "So within the range of kids, I work with kids that have the most needs," says Johnston. "Some of them have severe cerebral palsy and so they just take a little more time. Some of them just didn't get the education early enough, so we're playing catch up with them to push them into the system."
Not exactly a light-hearted day job chosen at random on a summer's day, every volunteer and paid aide provides an invaluable service and Johnston recognizes he's one of many heroes in that sense. "I think there are other people that do more outstanding things than I do, the people who run the Jesuit society that work with battered women." he says. "Those are the heroes that do the real hero stuff, but this is a nice recognition. There are a lot of hidden heroes out there, teachers who don't get thanked, the 2,300 to 10,000 aides in this town that work with kids and do what I do."
What sets Johnston apart, is his volunteer time as an assisted runner of a student, Lauren, who wanted to run on the cross country team and was from the special needs room he was working in at the time at River Glen Junior High. "I started running with [Lauren] when she was in the eighth grade, and now she's a senior," Johnston says. "I ran in the meets with her and that year the girls took city, and Lauren was on the team and made the fourth person coming across the finish line so our girls could win city," When Lauren continued onto high school, her new coaches asked Johnston to run with her again and they train almost year-round, running an impressive six hours a week.
"When I got the job," Johnston says, reflecting on his work with special needs youth in general, "I wasn't expecting to keep it, but I really enjoy what I do and my instincts seem to be right." Though he's witnessed others burn out, Johnston still enjoys the challenge of remaining patient above all things. "Working with other human beings, other people who put limitations on what a kid can do, who sort of stop a kid from progressing [is challenging]," he says. "The runner I run with, she has a fear of the start line gun. It's a gun thing and she has a terrible fear when she sees the gun, as soon as the gun comes out she starts to shake. And now everybody knows about it and so we hide the gun, we position ourselves on one end of the gun. And to me, for her to go up there every race and know the gun's going to be there and confront her fear like that, to me that's a lot harder than going out there and running with her."
Regarding the drunk driver, Johnston recognizes that the details may have spread into a tall tale of a chase, capture and citizen's arrest, when in reality the man was very cooperative. Johnston's efforts did, however, stop the man from driving away when he heard the crash outside his home and rushed to the scene.
"The whole idea of the neighborhood watch thing, when you first move to the neighborhood, there's initiation and we talk around and have fun," Johnston says mischievously. "And if we don't get to know you, we start rumors about you," he continues laughing. "And that's even better you know, because nobody heard the right story anyway so you have to make it better."
Though now the torch will pass to the next neighbor who does a good deed, Johnston is a tough act to follow. He's the affable Kramer character next door who would give you the shirt off his back kind of guy-a local hero in every sense of the word.