Of the 50 years that Sunflower Diversified Services has been serving people with developmental disabilities, Jim Johnson has been at the helm for 42. For his diligent work advocating for an underserved portion of the area population, Johnson received the 2015 Citizen of the Year Award from the Great Bend Chamber of Commerce & Economic Development.
Raised in Larned, one of five children, Johnson worked for the school district in high school to save money for higher education. After graduating from Larned High School in 1969, he earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and economics from Fort Hays State University in 1973 and was a member of Alpha Phi Omega, a service fraternity. It was there that he met his wife, Judy, while they were both students and they were married in 1972.
After college, Johnson intended to work for the state highway department while pursuing a higher engineering degree. While job hunting, he volunteered at the Horner B. Reed Training Center in Hays, a workshop for developmentally delayed adults, where Judy was employed. He was immediately offered a job as a supervisor, and found his passion helping other people. One of the first contracts he secured was with a new manufacturing company in Great Bend known as Fuller Brush, and his clients trimmed thousands and thousands of brush bristles. These relationships in Great Bend blossomed when Johnson accepted a position in 1974 in Judy’s hometown with the non-profit agency he has since spent a lifetime building. He became executive director of Sunflower in 1980.
One of Johnson’s first contributions to the industry was changing the stigma around developmental delays. Prior to the 1970s, people with developmental delays were hidden away, and some were placed in institutions. This started to change in the 1970s, when families wanted to include their children in social and community activities. A big part of the change was about creating independence for individuals. Employment, housing and activities were among the first projects Johnson worked to create.
Other programs he helped develop include the Early Education Center and Incredible Years Preschool, which emphasizes early intervention for children with developmental delays.
“During the years when funding was difficult and policies were changing erratically, Jim would stop by the Early Education Center and look at the babies, some in cribs and some learning to walk or talk,” Judy Johnson said. “He always said seeing the infants reminded him of his purpose, his vision for what could be. Those babies revitalized him.”
Johnson’s passion for serving others has extended far beyond the local level. He has served on many volunteer panels and committees for InterHab, the state association for developmental service providers. His roles include serving on the Employment First Initiative and the Developmental Disabilities Council.
“Jim has been an advocate for several policy issues, including early intervention services, guardianship training, governmental affairs, and a new family services waiver,” said Tom Laing, manager for InterHab in Topeka. “Most of all, Jim was a voice for protecting consumer-based principles in addressing provider-based issues across the State. He is a leader in this industry, and a mentor to many.”
One of Johnson’s favorite quotes – one he uses to advocate for Sunflower Diversified Services charitable work – comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Treat a man as he is, and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he could be, and he will become what he should be.”
That philosophy has taken Johnson, and the agency he leads, a long way since 1974. Sunflower Diversified Services now employs 140 people with a payroll of over $3 million. The agency serves 150 adults and 251 infants and toddlers, with 61 students in the Incredible Years Preschool. Its payroll for clients is over $250,000 annually.
Outside of work, Johnson is an active member of the Prince of Peace Parish, where he plays the guitar and volunteered with Judy as the choir directors for over 40 years. He has volunteered for United Way, back in the days when the agency still went door to door. He also served on the board of directors for the Great Bend Chamber of Commerce & Economic Development.
In his limited free time outside of his non-profit career, he enjoys designing and building things in his garage. His retirement plans include restoring a 1950 Chevrolet pickup. Jim and Judy have one son, Darin, owner of Darin’s Auto Repair in Great Bend.
“It isn’t very often anymore that people dedicate their entire lives to their work, especially when that line of work faces so many challenges politically and economically,” said Jan Peters, president/CEO of the Great Bend Chamber of Commerce & Economic Development. “But Jim Johnson has given so much of himself to advance an industry, overcoming countless obstacles and pioneering new ways to serve a population of people that need him. His contributions to the Great Bend community are immeasurable, and we are proud of all that he has accomplished.”
Citizen of the Year Criteria
Annually, the Chamber recognizes outstanding service by an individual who contributes to the quality of life in Great Bend. The award winner is also someone who gives of their time, talent and energy to help the Great Bend Chamber of Commerce excel. Additionally, the award recognizes people who provide outstanding service to the community, or it recognizes people who have excelled in their chosen professions and serve as role models in the community.