In a second-floor boutique called the Enchanted Closet, where teen girls come hoping to look perfect if only for a night, Bonita Johnson talks about the moment she knew her mission in life was to help those same girls believe in themselves.
She was a freshman at Tuskegee University pursuing a biology degree when, she said, the notion came to her to make a difference in the lives of young women who were growing up feeling alone, insecure and misunderstood.
"That was me," said Johnson, dressed in her signature Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority pink.
The only child of a single mother, Johnson said she let many an opportunity pass her by because she lacked the confidence to take advantage of them.
But soon after arriving at Tuskegee and becoming an AKA, she discovered those feelings she had growing up were normal, that none of us are immune to problems and the only difference is how one deals with them.
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Johnson said she began drawing on her childhood experience, writing skits and poems and using them to help her sorority get messages across to teens. That work eventually led to her work with DeKalb County debutantes.
When she decided she wanted to begin to effect change in the lives of young women on a larger scale, she said she became a member of the board of directors of the Enchanted Closet. This nonprofit teaches life skills and provides free formal wear to teenage girls attending prom, homecoming, JROTC balls, and other events, who otherwise couldn't afford it.
That was in 2005.
In 2007, when the organization's founder was about to move to Texas, Johnson assumed full responsibility for Enchanted Closet. Her life since, Johnson said, has never been the same. And neither have the lives of many of the young women who have found their way to her Sandy Springs boutique, Johnson's admirers say.
"To date, more than 3,000 young women have benefited from the prom dress giveaways and 400 have participated in the workshops Bonita has organized," said Jacqueline Petty, a volunteer with the organization.
Petty said those workshops, part of the Girls Service-Learning Program Johnson started, have helped boost the confidence and self-esteem of hundreds of young women and encouraged them to become productive citizens of society. Many go on to attend and graduate college, and some have even started their own businesses while still in high school, she said.
Soon after becoming involved with the Enchanted Closet, Johnson said, she realized the teens needed much more than gowns and glitter.
"The dresses made them look good on prom night, but we needed to do something that would impact them long-term," she said.
That meant providing them with the tools they needed to manage their emotions and to focus on gaining knowledge and skills that would help them become self-sufficient. The workshops are held monthly.
In addition to the prom season, the Enchanted Closet is open to the public 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. Dresses, including some from Vera Wang and other top designers, sell for $5 to $50. Johnson uses the proceeds to pay for programming for the teens.
When a reporter read to her part of the nominating letter the AJC received about her, Johnson cried.
"I just feel like I'm doing what I'm supposed to do," she said, wiping away tears. "I'm living my passion and my purpose and being obedient to the call of my life."
AJC Holiday Heroes 2010
For the second year, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has selected a group of metro Atlanta residents to honor as Holiday Heroes, members of our community who, often at their own expense and without fanfare, do what they can to help others. Thirteen winners were selected from among dozens of worthy nominees. Besides having their stories told in the AJC and on ajc.com, this year’s Heroes will also be featured on radio station B98.5 FM, and each will receive a $250 gift card donated by the Buckhead Life restaurant group. The stories of all the 2010 Holiday Heroes can be found online at www.ajc.com/holiday.